By KATHLEEN HENNESSEY
WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama said Tuesday he is working to "regain the trust" of the nation's veterans by improving their access to quality health care and education as he struggled to recover from a scandal that thrust the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs into the spotlight earlier this year.
"We are going to get to the bottom of these problems. We're going to fix what is wrong," Obama told thousands of veterans gathered in Charlotte, N.C., for the annual American Legion conference. "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."
Shortly before Obama's remarks, the White House announced a series of policy changes and public-private partnerships aimed at easing service members' transition to civilian life.
The 19 policy changes included improved coordination between the Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs on mental health care services, better access for veterans to psychiatric medications and greater awareness and training on suicide prevention.
The list included seemingly straightforward changes, such as making it easier for veterans to earn commercial driver's licenses, and new funding for complex research.
The Pentagon and the National Institutes of Health have launched a study on early detection of suicide risk, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain disorder, while the VA will invest $34.4 million in a national clinical trial on suicide prevention involving 1,800 veterans at 29 hospitals, the White House said.
"We have to end this tragedy of suicide among our troops and veterans," Obama said. "As a country, we can't stand idly by."
Using one of the White House's preferred strategies for policy changes, Obama also announced new commitments from the private sector. Wells Fargo, CitiMortgage, Bank of America, Ocwen Loan Servicing and Quicken Loans have agreed to make it easier to apply for mortgage interest breaks available to veterans, the White House said. The mortgage servicers also agreed to reach out to eligible veterans in an effort to boost lagging participation in the programs.
Similarly, the Department of Education is ordering student loan servicers to cross-reference their student borrowers with the Defense Department's database of veterans in an effort to identify borrowers eligible for student loan relief.
The announcements are part of a White House effort to demonstrate it has learned the lessons of the VA scandal that exposed mismanagement this spring and led to the resignation of Secretary Eric Shinseki.
On Tuesday, the president called the long wait times and "secret lists" for appointments exposed by whistleblowers at clinics across the country "outrageous and inexcusable," and cast his newly confirmed Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald as no-nonsense reformer.
"Bob doesn't play," Obama said.
More work needs to be done, Obama acknowledged. He gave Congress some credit for also responding with reforms. Before leaving for summer break, lawmakers approved a $16.3 billion measure to reform the VA and create a new benefit for veterans. Those who have waited for more than a month for an appointment or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility can see a private doctor and other health professionals. The bill includes roughly $6 billion to expand existing VA programs, personnel and facilities.
In response to the president's speech, the Republican head of the House committee overseeing veterans issues criticized his efforts.
"President Obama's actions today fall far short of what's needed to regain the trust of America's veterans," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs committee.
"What we need from the president right now is more follow through and less flash when it comes to helping veterans."
Miller called for more accountability for VA management and better cooperation with his committee, which is investigating the matter. He said the VA had not replied to more than 100 requests for information and said whistleblowers who exposed problems still are subject to retaliation.
Obama's remarks also included a pledge to care for the next generation of veterans returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a promise not to "be dragged back" into another group war in Iraq.
Obama justified his recent air campaign there as "limited" and intended to protect military and diplomatic personnel in Iraq.
The president gave little sign of whether he plans to expand those airstrikes into Syria, something his military advisers have suggested would be necessary to defeat Islamic State militants battling for control in the region.
Obama told the veterans he was mindful of the lessons of the last Iraq war.
"History teaches us of the dangers of overreaching and spreading ourselves too thin and trying to go it alone without international support, or rushing into military adventures without thinking through the consequences," he said. "You're the ones who carry the scars. You know that we should never send America's sons and daughters into harm's way unless it is absolutely necessary and we have a plan, and we are resourcing it and prepared to see it through."
Still, Obama said the U.S. would not forget the murder of American journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by the extremist militants.
"America does not forget. Our reach is long, we are patient, justice will be done," he said. "We have proved time and time again we will do what's necessary to capture those who harm Americans -- to go after those who harm Americans. And we'll continue to take direct action where needed to protect our people and to defend our homeland."