Under criticism for failing to mention the war in Afghanistan or recognize America’s troops in his convention speech last month, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney repeatedly praised veterans, troops and civilian responders as he addressed a National Guard gathering here Tuesday.

Romney, in a 19-minute speech to the National Guard Association conference, paid tribute to those who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, as well as to those who responded to what he called “evil and cowardly and heinous attacks.”

Although he made no mention of President Obama and drew only subtle contrasts with the president’s foreign policy, the Republican nominee delivered a muscular address calling for an “American century” marked by clear resolve and enhanced U.S. military might.

Romney made no new policy pronouncements; he set a goal for the Afghanistan war, as he has before, of completing a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014, but did not expound on the decade-long war.

Instead, Romney told personal stories of his encounters with troops and Guardsmen, both during a trip to Afghanistan and Iraq, as governor of Massachusetts and on the campaign trail running for president.

“It has been my privilege to meet with troops and veterans from just about every state,” Romney said. “They come from our farms, our great cities, our small towns and quiet neighborhoods. Many have known violence so that their neighbors could know peace. They have done more than protect America; their courage and service defines America.”

These are the kinds of recollections Romney left out of his acceptance speech Aug. 30 at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, where he became the first Republican in generations not to mention war in accepting his party’s nomination.

“It reveals a severe lack of understanding about the job as president, doesn’t reflect well on what kind of leadership he would bring and, frankly, it’s just unbecoming of someone who wants to become commander in chief,” Wesley Clark, the former NATO supreme allied commander, told reporters Monday on a conference call organized by the Obama campaign.

With Democrats trying to gain an advantage over Romney on military and national security issues, Romney hoped his speech Tuesday would help reset that debate and establish him — and the Republican Party — as tough on matters of war.

Romney said he would help steer a century that began with terror, war and economic calamity onto the path of freedom, peace and prosperity.

“America must lead the free world, and the free world must lead the entire world,” Romney said. “In our dealings with other nations, we must demonstrate confidence in our cause, clarity in our purpose and resolve in the application of our military might.”

Romney drew a subtle contrast with Obama when he voiced criticism of looming defense budget cuts, which he called “devastating” and said would “hollow out our military.”

“It is true that our armed forces have been stretched to the brink — and that is all the more reason to repair and rebuild,” Romney said. “We can always find places to end waste. But we cannot cancel program after program, we cannot jeopardize critical missions and we cannot cut corners in the quality of the equipment and training we provide to our men and women in uniform.”

Romney shared his own memories from Sept. 11, 2001, when he was in Washington as the head of the Winter Olympic Games, meeting with members of Congress about security preparations for the Salt Lake City. He said he watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center on a small television on his desk. Later, he recalled, he left Washington and passed by the Pentagon just after crossing the Potomac River.

“Cars had stopped where they were and people had gotten out, watching in horror,” Romney said. “I could smell burning fuel and concrete and steel. It was the smell of war, something I never imagined I would smell in America.”