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During Visit to North Carolina, Obama Tries to Regain Support of Veterans After VA Scandal

In the aftermath of the scandal at the nation’s Department of Veterans Affairs that resulted in the resignation of cabinet member and retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, President Barack Obama traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina, to recite before an American Legion crowd all of the executive actions he will take to improve the way the nation treats its veterans.

The efforts the Obama administration will take include expanding research into post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries, developing ways to prevent suicide among veterans and making it easier for veterans to transition into mental health services provided by civilian doctors or the VA after leaving active duty, according to the president. In addition, the administration also will make it easier for veterans to negotiate lower mortgage and student loan interest rates with financial institutions.

The issue that put the VA on the president’s radar screen was the revelation about interminably long waits for care at VA facilities, which Obama called “outrageous and inexcusable.”

“We’re focused on this at the highest levels,” Obama told the crowd of 7,000 at the American Legion event in Charlotte. “We are going to get to the bottom of these problems. We’re going to fix what is wrong. We’re going to do right by you. And we are going to do right by your families. And that is a solemn pledge and commitment that I’m making to you here.”

Referring to the scandal that cost Shinseki his job, Obama said, “Already, we’re making sure that those responsible for manipulating or falsifying records are held accountable. We’re reaching out to veterans — more than a quarter million so far — to get them off wait lists and into clinics.”

The president was full of praise for the new head of the VA, former corporate executive Robert McDonald, who was unanimously approved last month by the Senate — which also approved $16 billion in new funding to build more VA facilities and hire more workers.

“We’re instituting a new culture of accountability,” Obama said. “Bob doesn’t play. Bob likes to recall a cadet prayer from West Point, which should be the ethos of all of us:  ‘Choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.’ And with the new legislation that I signed into law, Bob and the VA now have the authority to more quickly remove senior executives who don’t meet our high standards. If you engage in unethical practices, or cover up a serious problem, you should be and will be fired.”

The administration announced several other steps it is taking to make life easier for veterans, including reducing the backlog of disability claims by more than 50 percent since last year; helping vets get better access to home loans, higher education loans and employment; and reducing homelessness for veterans by 33 percent by working with organizations like the American Legion.

“That means, on any given night, there are 25,000 fewer veterans on the streets or in shelters,” he said. “But we’re not going to stop until every veteran who defended America has a home in America. That’s a basic commitment that we have to uphold.”

The president was greeted on the tarmac with a hug and a kiss at the airport in North Carolina by the state’s incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, who is in a tough battle for re-election against Republican candidate Thom Tillis. Tillis released a statement accusing Hagan of being a “rubber stamp” for the Obama administration — the same line used against Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn in Georgia by Republican David Perdue.

But before the president got to North Carolina, Hagan released a statement saying Obama’s administration hasn’t yet done enough to regain the trust of veterans after the agency scandal.

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