President Bush today hailed the role of the National Guard in defending America from "terrorist enemies" around the world and said he was proud of his own service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.
Addressing a convention of the National Guard Association in Las Vegas while campaigning in the west for reelection, Bush steered clear of a controversy that has swirled in recent weeks over allegations that he received preferential treatment in his admission into the Guard and failed to meet his obligations during his service from 1968 to 1973.
Since the Guard's origins in the 17th century, Bush observed, 19 Americans have served both in the National Guard and as president, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln and Harry S. Truman. "And I am proud to be one of them," Bush said.
"More than 185,000 Guard members have been called to serve on every front in the war on terror," Bush said. "You are fighting terrorist enemies in Iraq, Afghanistan and across the globe, so we do not have to face them here at home. America is safer because of your service."
Democrats criticized Bush's record on supporting the National Guard as president and demanded that he answer questions about his service in the Guard during the Vietnam war.
A statement issued by the presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry said Bush had opposed efforts to improve health care for the National Guard, reservists and veterans as part of an $87 billion emergency supplemental appropriations bill for operations and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003. The statement also highlighted pay problems in the Guard, concerns about "overstretched" units and worries in a number of states that they have insufficient strength to deal with natural disasters and other domestic emergencies.
The Democratic National Committee today issued a video accusing Bush, as a "son of privilege," of leapfrogging a long waiting list to get into the Texas Air National Guard in 1968 and shirking his duty for six months in 1972 when he went to Alabama to work on a political campaign.
"It's time for George Bush to come clean and answer the questions about his service," a narrator on the video says.
Kerry, during a campaign stop in Ohio, issued a statement blasting Bush for "distortions" about the situation in Iraq in his speech to the National Guard gathering. The statement made no mention of Bush's own service.
In his address, Bush acknowledged that "this time of call-ups, alerts, mobilizations and deployments has been difficult for Guard members and their families and employers." He said his administration was working to "provide you at least 30 days notification before you are mobilized, so you have time to make arrangements," and to "give you as much certainty as possible about the length of your mobilization."
Bush added, "And we are working to minimize the number of extensions and repeat mobilizations, by moving forces out of low-demand specialties, such as heavy artillery, and increasing the number of available troops with skills that are in high demand, such as military police, civil affairs and special operations."
He said the administration also was "improving benefits and the quality of life for our nation's citizen-soldiers." He cited the expenditure of nearly $14 billion for construction, maintenance and support for Guard and Reserve facilities across the country, as well as the expansion of health care benefits for Guard and Reserve forces and their family members, including access to the military's TRICARE system for up to 90 days before they report and 180 days after deactivation.
Bush went on to deliver portions of his standard stump speech, asserting that "our strategy is succeeding" in the war on terrorism. He also defended his decision last year to invade Iraq, painted an optimistic picture of that country as a land headed toward free elections and declared that "the army of a free Iraq is fighting for freedom."
The Kerry campaign said the Bush administration had opposed extending TRICARE benefits to the National Guard and Reserves in a 2004 defense appropriations bill, even threatening a presidential veto at one point.
Kerry, denouncing Bush's comments about Iraq, said in his statement that the president "keeps saying that things are getting better even when we all know that's just not true."
Charging that Bush has never leveled with the American people about Iraq, Kerry said, "So I'll be straight with you: things are getting worse. More than a thousand Americans have been killed. Instability is rising. Violence is spreading. Extremism is growing. There are now havens for terrorists that weren't there before. And the Pentagon has even admitted that entire regions of Iraq are now controlled by insurgents and terrorists. The situation is serious -- and we need a president who will set a new direction and be straight with the American people."
In addition to the mounting casualties, Kerry said, the price tag so far for Iraq comes to $200 billion -- money that is not being spent on domestic priorities such as health care, education, jobs and homeland security.
Some of the harshest criticism of Bush came from Kerry supporters who zeroed in on the president's National Guard service.
Retired Air Force Gen. Merrill A. "Tony" McPeak said in a statement, "Until we know the truth about President Bush's service -- how he got into the Guard, how and why he neglected his duty, how and why he was not disciplined -- this issue will hang around and smell up the place."
Retired Adm. Stansfield Turner, a former CIA director under the Carter administration, said, "The president dishonored the Guard decades ago, and he dishonors them today by the way he misuses and mistreats them. He's turned our Guard and Reserve forces into a backdoor draft. . . ."