From the Naples News
U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez spoke in Naples on Tuesday about Iraq policy, energy, natural resources and immigration.
Veterans, soldiers on leave, community members and leaders gathered with the Florida Republican to honor American soldiers, and one former soldier in particular, at Naples American Legion Post No. 153 in the late afternoon.
Later in the evening, Martinez talked at the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce about the recently concluded Congress session and his goals for the next session.
In a room filled with veterans, American Legion members, and community members and leaders, Martinez congratulated John Bunch, founder of Operation Open Arms, and honored current and former American soldiers.
“Today I would say to you that we are proud of you, we are proud of your service and we are proud of your sacrifice,” Martinez said.
The senator spoke after the color guard presented the flags and the crowd of about 100 people stood to say the pledge and sing the national anthem. Martinez compared the generation of soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan to the veterans, whom he called “the greatest generation,” sitting in the audience.
“Politicians, we’re not really humble people,” said U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart as he stepped up to the podium after Martinez. “But we are humbled every single time that we are face to face with a man or woman in uniform.”
At that moment, the audience burst into applause.
“We are humbled by your service,” Diaz, R-Miami, concluded.
A flag, folded 12 times by three retired Marines, was presented to John Bunch for his efforts with Operation Open Arms. The organization, which Bunch started in 2005, helps put soldiers in contact with businesses that offer free support and services to troops who are returning or on leave.
Albert Gubala, 22, joined the Marines in 2002 when he graduated from high school. Today, after spending 15 months in Iraq, the Naples native has been honorably discharged.
When Gubala returned from his service, he and his wife stayed in a hotel in Fort Myers Beach for two nights, thanks to Operation Open Arms.
“I think it’s an awesome program,” Gubala said. “It shows that people here still acknowledge that there are vets coming back every day.”
Later, at the Chamber event, Martinez called Iraq the No. 1 issue facing the federal government. “We have a very serious problem in Iraq, that cries out for bipartisanship,” Martinez said.
Martinez thinks the president is approaching the situation in Iraq correctly by getting advice from new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the Baker-Hamilton Commission and the internal review of Iraq policy.
“I think it has to be a two-tiered track, military and political,” he said. “Until … the political differences in Iraq are resolved, there will not be a successful outcome.”
Martinez, who said he would be open to sending in more troops, opened his remarks at the Chamber by speaking about the mid-term elections, and then moved on to talk about the U.S. Senate bill that will make an energy-laden tract in the eastern Gulf of Mexico available for oil and gas drilling in the next year.
“It will be different to be in the minority; however, with a 49-seat minority, I think there will still be an opportunity to have a lot of input in what legislation gets through the process,” Martinez said earlier in the afternoon.
“I also think it will be a time to focus more on what unites us as Americans, and not on what divides us.”
This message of bipartisanship came up when Martinez spoke about other issues the Senate will face, including Iraq policy, immigration and energy.
When the 110th session of Congress opens, Martinez will serve on the Energy and Natural resources committee, and he named two solutions to energy problems: conservation and alternative fuels.
“I think every one of us can do more to conserve energy,” Martinez said. “The second solution is to use our technological … know-how to find the alternative sources of energy that are going to power our lives into the future.”
When the floor was opened for questions, people asked about the energy issue and global warming. Martinez responded by saying he would support a new global emissions agreement and alternative fuel research.
On immigration, Martinez spoke about finding “a comprehensive solution” and emphasized the need for bipartisan efforts.
“The problem is not just the border,” he said. “We have 12 million people living here illegally.”
He mentioned a guest worker program to help the border situation and for the 12 million people already here, “to find a way to normalize their status without just a blanket amnesty.”
Martinez, who lived in Cuba until he was 15 years old, called the recent U.S. congressional delegation visit to Cuba a “colossal failure,” because Raul Castro declined to meet with them and the Cuban government “made it very clear that they were not interested in talking.”
“It’s apparent to me that they’re in a very fragile moment where there is no leadership,” Martinez said. U.S. policy should not change toward the country, and progress won’t be made until there are leaders in place who are willing to negotiate, he added.
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