Obama comes face to face with burdens of 9/11 generation

Updated 9:35 PM EDT, Wed September 28, 2016
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Story highlights

Obama thanks military members, bereaved relatives for service

President compares much-criticized VA to ocean liner that takes time to turn

(CNN) —  

President Barack Obama came face to face with the human cost borne by the military’s 9/11 generation on Wednesday during a CNN presidential town hall moderated by Jake Tapper.

Appearing before a military audience in Fort Lee, Virginia, Obama also confronted the limits of his own power as he fielded probing questions about terrorist groups and health care delays for veterans. It all played out against the backdrop of the first congressional override of a veto during Obama’s nearly eight years in office. 

While he repeatedly expressed empathy and gratitude for the sacrifices of so many in the audience, he found himself grappling with situations where the government hadn’t been able to do enough.

Donna Coates, whose husband Barry died from colon cancer after waiting a year for a scan due to delays at a Veterans Affairs facility, asked Obama why vets still struggled for adequate medical care despite his administration’s promises to fix the problems.

RELATED: Aleppo teeters but no sign of US action

“Nothing has changed,” Coates said. “I am now a widow and my family, we won’t ever be the same.”

Obama said his heart went out to Coates, pledging to look into why the contracted doctor said to have misdiagnosed her husband was still treating vets.

But he said his administration was working diligently to fix the VA and had made progress, adding that no President had increased the department’s budget faster and more aggressively than he had.

“We now have a situation where about 80% of individuals who interact with the VA are satisfied that they are getting timely treatment. I want that to be 100%,” Obama said, comparing the VA to an ocean liner that takes time to get on the right course.

Soldiers strugging with PTSD

Another widow, Amanda Souza, whose husband took his own life after suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from multiple deployments, fought her emotions to plead with Obama to do more for troops’ mental health – warning that many like her husband were scared to ask for help.

“He ended up joining the ranks of the, on average, 22 veterans a day that commit suicide,” said Souza.

“This is something we just have to talk about more,” Obama responded, noting that he had instructed the Joint Chiefs of Staff to de-stigmatize mental health issues. He said there was nothing weak about soldiers asking for help.

There were also moments when Obama was challenged by audience members, including Tina Houchins, whose 19-year-old son Aaron was killed in Baghdad in 2007. She brought up accusations that Obama was unwilling to label terrorism as specifically linked to Islam.

Obama replied by saying the notion was “manufactured” by his critics and argued that al Qaeda and ISIS had perverted Islam as an excuse for carnage and death.

He then offered an extended defense of why – though he said he doesn’t object to the term – he doesn’t think it’s helpful to use.

“When you start calling these organizations Islamic terrorists, the way it is heard, the way it is received by our friends and allies around the world, is that somehow Islam is terroristic. That then makes them feel as if they are under attack,” he said warning against a contest between the West and Islam.

And he was asked by 1st Lt. James Sutter, who serves in a mortuary affairs company, whether he appreciates that many in the military who had seen comrades lay down their lives did not like to see NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial disparities in policing – a practice Obama previously defended.

“I believe that us honoring our flag and our anthem is part of what binds us together as a nation,” Obama said. “But I am also always trying to remind folks that part of what makes this country special is that we respect people’s rights to have a different opinion … We fight sometimes so that people can do things we disagree with.”

Some of the questions forced the President to ponder the limits of his own capacity to effect change not just within military institutions such as the VA, but in Washington and around the world.

Obama is overridden

While he was out of town for the forum, Congress acted to override one of his vetoes for the first time. The new law allows relatives of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia and other countries alleged to be complicit in terror attacks on Americans.

“I think it was a mistake,” Obama said of the override, though he added, “I understand why it happened. Obviously all of us still carry the scars and trauma of 9/11.”

He blamed the override on election year politics.

“If you’re perceived as voting against 9/11 families right before an election, not surprisingly, that’s a hard vote for people to take,” he said. “And it was, you know, basically a political vote.”

RELATED: Congress overrides Obama’s veto of 9/11 bill

The constraints on Obama’s power abroad were also on display.

He painstakingly defended his decision not to become more involved in stopping the carnage in Syria, even after recently admitting that he is constantly haunted by the human toll of the civil war.

“There hasn’t been probably a week that has gone by in which I haven’t examined some of the underlying premises around how we are dealing with this situation in Syria,” Obama told Tapper.

But, he continued, “there is not a scenario in which, absent us deploying large numbers of troops, we can stop a civil war in which both sides are deeply dug in.”

He concluded, “It is in these situations where you have to make judgments about what is best for the national security interests of the United States even though what you see is heartbreaking.”

A plan for Afghanistan

Laying out one of his core national security rationales, he said great nations get in trouble when they become over-extended.

Col. Adam Butler, who served in Afghanistan and is the Fort Lee Garrison Commander, asked Obama how he could prevent gains made there from being lost when US troops leave, as happened in Iraq.

The President said that Washington and its allies were working to train and equip Afghanistan’s armed forces and to maintain a counter-terrorism operation in the country. But he also argued that much rested on the behavior of local governments that the US cannot always control.

“This is true in Iraq, this is true in Afghanistan … those governments also have to be responsive to people,” he said. “They have to work to eliminate corruption and their leadership has to say, ‘We are not going to treat Sunnis differently than Shi’ite or Kurd or whatever ethnic groups are in these countries.’ “

“We are not going to have the capacity to police every one of these countries, to run every one of these countries,” Obama said, referring to Libya, Somalia and Yemen.

Obama was also clearly conscious of the fact that his time as commander in chief is almost over and with it his commanding bully pulpit. He used one of his last prime-time television venues Wednesday night to warn against the vision of America presented by some on the other side of the aisle.

Though he denied he was taking a personal swipe at Republican nominee Donald Trump, Obama warned that people who use “loose” language about terrorism and Islam and propose greater scrutiny of US Muslims were on a “slippery slope.”

His last question was about two people dear to his hearts who will also set out on a new path when the family leaves the White House in January.

Asked how he would respond if either of his daughters Malia and Sasha said they wanted to join the military, he said: “I’d say, go for it.”

But he admitted he would share the anxiety many military families feel when their loved ones, particularly children, are deployed.

“I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t sometimes get nervous about possible deployments,” he told the audience. “Your kids are your kids and you want to keep them tucked in in their pajamas for the rest of your lives if you had the chance.”