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Obama Speaks with 'Deep Humility' on Memorial Day


Sen. Barack Obama, left, greets Marine Corps veterans with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, right, at the Veteran's Memorial Park in Las Cruces, N.M., May 26, 2008. (Associated Press)

By Karl Vick
LAS CRUCES, N.M. --- Sen. Barack Obama spoke for most of an hour about doing right by America's veterans without crossing swords with Sen. John McCain, in a carefully measured Memorial Day appearance that kept the focus on the former service members seated around him on three sides.

"I speak to you today with deep humility," Obama said in a speech delivered before an invitation-only town hall meeting at a ranching museum in southern New Mexico. "My grandfather marched in Patton's Army, but I cannot know what it is to walk into battle like so many of you. My grandmother worked on a bomber assembly line, but I cannot know what it is for a family to sacrifice like so many of yours have.

"I am the father of two young girls, and I cannot imagine what it is to lose a child. My heart breaks for the families who've lost a loved one.

"These things I cannot know," the Illinois Democrat said, "but there are some things I do know."

And with that the candidate edged into his critique of military and veterans affairs under the Bush administration. Along the way, he endorsed legislation that he said would give veterans the same benefits his grandfather's generation enjoyed under the G.I. Bill.

McCain, the career Naval officer, former POW and presumptive GOP nominee, opposes the measure, citing concerns that it will deplete the all-volunteer army; along with the Pentagon, he prefers a plan that increases benefits with time served.

But Obama avoided renewing a clash over the issue that recently turned sharply personal. On Memorial Day his only named rival was President Bush, for threatening a veto Obama predicted Congress would vote to override.

The campaign's only event was before fewer than 200 people assembled on one end of the museum courtyard, under a mile-high bluebird sky.

"Solar!" Obama said to laughter while discussing energy policy, and the need to develop alternative energies to assure economic security, a precondition to military security. "There's a lot of sun around here. I think we can use it."

Oddly, a pair of 18 kilowatt Hollywood-style klieg lights burned from the back of the courtyard, as if the day wasn't quite bright enough.

Obama's speech was first interrupted by applause when he mentioned "giving the same priority to building a 21st-century VA as to building a 21st-century military," and a moment later when he spoke of "zero tolerance for veterans sleeping on our streets."

The emphasis on the living played well on a day of observance for the dead. The warm crowd warmed to Obama's call for positioning smaller VA clinics more conveniently to rural veterans who face long drives to larger, urban facilities. And there was applause for increased attention to mental health, including routine screening for post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Obama said he suspects that one of the reasons his grandfather seldom spoke of his wartime experience was the trauma he had witnessed.

"In World War II we didn't have the concept of post-traumatic stress syndrome. People had to basically handle it on their own," he said. Referring to an uncle who had been one of the first U.S. troops into Auschwitz, the concentration camp, Obama said: "The story in the family is he came home and just went up in the attic."

Afterward, Paul Weinbaum, 66, beamed his approval of a candidate who had captured both his frustrations and his desire.

"There is hope for America," he said. "The sincerity comes through."

He wore a straw cowboy hat, a Star of David necklace and, on his lapel, the crossed rifles of an infantryman, which took some explaining. Weinbaum served in the Navy during Vietnam, but after the war emerged into an economy that could not give him civilian work. "I got out of the Navy, went to college: No jobs. So I joined the Army."

He laughed, then related another experience that illustrated another of Obama's points.
"I went to the VA one time. They said, 'You're not sick enough.' I said, 'I just want a physical.' They did not yet have, what do you call it, any concept of preventative care."

By Washington Post Editors  |  May 26, 2008; 5:25 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama  
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