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Op-Ed: Congress to the Commonwealth: Supporting Our Troops

Date: March 20, 2007
Location: Washington, DC

Congress to the Commonwealth: Supporting Our Troops

Nearly four years after the President declared "Mission Accomplished," our brave men and women are still fighting in Iraq. Over three thousand Americans serving in our active and reserve military have lost their lives, and tens of thousands have been wounded. As the President deepens our involvement in Iraq by sending an additional 25,000 combat troops, Congress is stepping up its leadership by holding the President accountable for spiraling war costs and a staggering lack of progress on the ground.

In the coming week, the House is set to consider the U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans' Health, and Iraq Accountability Act, which will change the equation in Iraq. In my view we have three options in this war. The first two options are either to do nothing or to withdraw immediately, both of which are not responsible actions. The only other option is the middle ground that this legislation takes. This bill will hold the Iraqi government to reasonable security, political and economic benchmarks that, if not met, will lead to the redeployment of our troops. Although the benchmarks are the same as those specified by the President in his January 10th address to the nation, he has threatened to veto this bill.

This legislation has three main goals: adequately fund our troops who are already on the ground; increase support for our veterans when they return from the battlefield; and refocus our security efforts on the most threatening Islamist terrorists in Afghanistan and around the globe. These steps are the key to putting our troops in a position in which they can succeed - and to finally hold the Iraqi people and the Bush Administration accountable.

Increasing accountability begins by prohibiting the deployment of troops who are not "fully mission capable" as defined by the Department of Defense. As it stands right now, service members who have yet to be fully trained, equipped and protected are seeing action on the front lines. These same troops are even seeing their tours of duty in Iraq extended. This situation is not fair to our military families or our troops and is only exacerbated by the substandard equipment many of our troops are forced to use. The Army has lost so much equipment in the Iraq War - including 2,000 wheeled vehicles and more than 100 armored vehicles - that many units are now relying on National Guard equipment. It is estimated that 75,000 to 100,000 pieces of National Guard equipment are in Iraq along with half of the ground equipment that the U.S. Army owns. Furthermore, because of harsh desert conditions in the region, equipment is wearing out nine times faster than the normal rate. The legislation before Congress will increase the funds necessary to help our troops on the ground.

While the new funding will make our troops safer, for the first time, this funding is not a blank check. Funding will only last so long as the Iraqi people do their part. For example, by July 1, 2007 the Iraqis must show meaningful progress toward a militia disarmament program and a plan that equitably shares oil revenues among all Iraqi factions. If these benchmarks are not met, American troops will be redeployed. This redeployment is not only reasonable, but it is in line with recent statements by U.S Commander in the Middle East, General Abizaid. He noted several months ago that U.S. troops have until the middle of this year before things "get out of control." Certainly, if our military commanders on the ground see this summer as a critical turning point in Iraq, it is imperative that we evaluate the progress of the Iraqi people at that time.

The bill also provides desperately needed funds to our men and women returning home from war. We owe our veterans a large debt for their service, and providing them with quality healthcare is the least we can do. The reports of patient neglect and unfit conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center are disgraceful. In order to immediately address this problem, this bill will provide $3.5 billion to help improve our military and veterans hospitals.

Lastly, the bill will redirect more resources to the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The majority of Americans believe our troops should be hunting down terrorists, not refereeing what has become a civil war in Iraq. This legislation provides an additional $1.2 billion to focus our efforts on destroying al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and all our terrorist enemies around the world. It's time we held the Bush Administration accountable for having the right priorities on fighting terrorism.

There is much at stake with this legislation, for our troops, our veterans and our national security. Hopefully, the situation in Iraq will improve soon, and one of the quickest ways to arrive at that improvement is for the Iraqis to be held accountable for the future of their country. This measure requires that result. I will be doing my part to encourage my colleagues in the House of Representatives to vote for this stronger future, and I hope you will join in the national call on the President to put away his veto pen and own up to the reality in Iraq. I will be proud to vote for this new direction that will be a giant step toward getting us back on the right track in fighting terrorism.