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We recently saw a major milestone in our engagement in Iraq as the last combat troops left the theater on August 19. The United States will keep a troop presence in the country to assist in training of Iraqi security forces, protect American personnel, and assist with counterterrorism efforts. Our military presence when I took office was approximately 144,000 troops, and approximately 94,000 of those are already home or on their way. This is a testament to the awesome courage, determination and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform, and I hope that every Virginian will find a way in the next few weeks to thank a veteran, a military spouse, or anyone else who has been part of this fight. This includes men and women from the Virginia National Guard's 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry who we welcomed home to our area last week from Iraq.
While combat engagement in Iraq ends, our commitment to our veterans must not. Last week, I met with a standing-room only crowd of veterans, many from the Vietnam-era, who are still fighting for proper support. I invited Rep. Bob Filner, Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, to Rustburg to hear directly from those who served. We were able to report back on some major progress in the backlog of Agent Orange exposure benefits, but we know far too many problems remain. One clear theme of the meeting was that we will not allow a new generation of veterans to ever face the treatment that so returning from Vietnam went through. From physical and mental health benefits to employment and education opportunities to marital support, we must live up to the promises we made to those who have served and continue to serve.
We celebrate the return of our brave troops, but we must not forget that many remain in harm’s way in Afghanistan. At recent town hall meetings, many have expressed concern about whether we can win in this region, while also echoing the importance of supporting and funding our troops while at war. America has high-level security interests in this region, most notably the threat presented if Pakistan, which possesses nuclear weapons, became destabilized or fell into the hands of extremists. We also cannot allow Afghanistan to again become a safe haven for terrorists. However, we must combine these strategic interests with the reality of an utterly corrupt Afghan government and a region that has often outlasted powerful visitors.
Congress should not micro-manage wars, but we must play an accountability role as those who appropriate the resources. I have voted to support funding for the Iraq and Afghan operations, but I have also supported efforts to require the President to present the Congress with a definition of what would constitute victory in the region, a basic strategy for achieving that goal, and a non-binding timeline for concluding operations. While this measure failed in the House, I believe it is the responsible way to meet our obligation to our troops and our taxpayers and prevent what remains a vital operation from becoming a quagmire.
I am encouraged that Gen. Petraeus, one of the greatest military minds in generations, is now leading the military effort on the ground. However, I continue to believe that even the greatest military can make only limited progress when forced to partner with a government as corrupt and ineffective as the Karzai regime. We must either be willing to support serious political change in Afghanistan or severely narrow our mission to surgical counter-terrorism efforts.
Our national security concerns are not limited to far away combat operations. We must be vigilant to keep America safe here at home, which is why I have supported efforts to secure our borders. Two weeks ago the House passed, and I supported, a fully paid for investment in our security operations along the southwest border. This funding will put an additional 1,000 new border patrol agents along the Mexican border to reduce violence and improve security, as well as 250 new Customs and Border Protection agents for ports of entry into the United States.
In addition to manpower, we are giving our law enforcement professionals the tools they need to secure our border and reduce violence. Improved equipment will also be purchased with the funding, including unmanned drones near the border, enhanced and coordinated communication equipment for local, state, and federal law enforcement, and forward operating stations near the border.
As always, please feel free to contact me to share your concerns and ideas. you can call 1-888-4TOM4US (1-888-486-6487); write to 1520 Longworth House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515, or visit http://www.perriello.house.gov to sign up for my weekly e-newsletter.