EL PASO — President Obama continued his emphasis on serving veterans and military families with a visit to Fort Bliss on Friday to announce a new executive order expanding suicide prevention and substance-abuse services for those who have served in the armed forces.
Obama appeared in Texas on the second anniversary of the end of combat in Iraq, which is not a coincidence, White House advisers said. The president has traveled the country speaking to military audiences about his decision to end that war as well as combat operations in Afghanistan. Along the way, he has promised to continue his commitment to service members, veterans and their families after they return home.
Obama spoke in a large hangar at Fort Bliss, an Army installation close to the Mexican border used for missile and artillery training and testing and home of the 1st Armored Division as well as the 32nd Army Air & Missile Defense Command.
The president jogged down the steps of Air Force One, stepping onto a sprawling tarmac where the temperature was 92 degrees. His motorcade passed huge fleets of neatly parked Blackhawk, Chinook and Apache helicopters on the way to the hangar, where 5,000 soldiers and an Army brass band were assembled to listen to him.
“Coming home can be its own struggle, especially for wounded warriors, so we’ve poured tremendous resources into this effort,” Obama said, the soldiers listening to him shouting “Hooah” after almost every line. “Everyone has a responsibility to help a comrade who’s hurting.”
“Part of ending these wars responsibly is caring for those who fought in them,” Obama said. “We may be turning a page on a decade of war, but America’s responsibilities to you have only just begun.”
Obama said he would send troops into harm’s way only when “absolutely necessary,” and only with the best equipment to keep them safe.
The president also drew what sounded like a contrast with his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, who has accused the president of drawing down too quickly in Afghanistan.
“We’re not just ending these wars,” Obama said. “We’re doing it in a way that keeps America safe and makes America stronger. And that includes our military. Think about it. Just four years ago there were some 180,000 troops in Iraq and afghan. By next month we will have cut that number by nearly two thirds. So most of our troops have come home.”
Soldiers in heavy fatigues fanned themselves to stay cool against a backdrop of desert, mountains and an Apache helicopter visible through the wide-open hangar doors.
Obama also told the story of meeting a young wounded soldier when he visited Afghanistan this spring. The crowd grew silent as he described walking into Sgt. Chase Haag’s hospital room, where the soldier was suffering a broken leg, fractured back and a face so swollen that his eyes couldn’t open.
The doctor encouraged the president to speak to the soldier anyway anyway, and he did. As Obama walked out of the room, he said, he heard a rustling sound, turned around, and saw that Haag was extending his arm to shake the president’s hand.
“It was a firm, Army hand shake,” Obama said. “And I don’t think there was a dry eye in that room.”
Obama met Haag a second time at Walter Reed Hospital later this year.
“He had endured multiple surgeries, physical therapy, but this time he was on his feet he was walking again and he had his dad next to him. And today he’s back where every soldier wants to be – back with his unit.”
Before his public speech, Obama participated in a roundtable discussion with 13 participants who, according to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, represented a “broad cross section” of Army ranks. They included two wounded warriors, and several participants were joined by their spouses. They talked about strengthening support programs for service members and their families, Carney said.
This was the president’s third visit to Fort Bliss in two years.
Speaking to reporters en route to Texas aboard Air Force One, Carney described Friday’s focus on the “unseen wounds of war,” including mental-health conditions such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, as the latest evidence that Obama is fulfilling that promise.
The executive order draws from existing resources rather than new appropriations, Carney said. It calls for an increase in mental-health providers serving veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs, more screenings and a new interagency task force to address the issue further.
“We can’t forget,” Carney said. “This country has been engaged in military conflict now for more than 10 years abroad since our first forces went into Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001. A tremendous number of men and women have served in those two countries.”
Carney didn’t pass up the opportunity to criticize Romney. On Thursday, the final night of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Romney accepted his party’s presidential nomination without mentioning Afghanistan.
“I was surprised not to hear mention of the 70,000 men and women who are serving in Afghanistan, executing a mission that is profoundly important to America’s national security in a conflict that was a direct result of an attack on the United States by al-Qaeda,” Carney said.
Carney had little to say about the other main event Thursday at the GOP convention — the buzz-generating speech by actor and director Clint Eastwood, in which he spoke to an imaginary Obama in the form of an empty chair. Carney declined to share his discussions about that address with the president.
“I caught it, and I’m a huge fan and admirer of Clint Eastwood’s work both as a director and an actor,” Carney said. “But I wasn’t quite sure what I was watching last night.”
On Monday, Obama will travel to Louisiana to tour storm damage, meet with state and local officials, and offer comfort to victims of Hurricane Isaac.
The president will add the trip to a busy schedule of campaign travel, dropping a visit to Cleveland but sticking with the rest of a three-day swing through Iowa, Colorado and Ohio that begins Saturday. On Wednesday, Obama will travel to Charlotte, where he will accept his party’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention on Thursday.
Carney said the trip was planned before Romney announced plans to visit Louisiana on Friday.
Carney referred to state and local officials questions about whether Romney’s trip was too soon after the storm or could impede recovery efforts. Asked what Romney could accomplish on his visit, Carney said: “It’s always important to draw attention to the fact that individuals and families and business owners are profoundly affected by storms like Isaac.”
Isaac, now a tropical depression, had pushed its way inland by Friday, but not before causing widespread flooding and wind damage in the Gulf states, especially Louisiana. It also had affected the Republican National Convention, causing the GOP to delay the start of its event from Monday to Tuesday.
White House officials said earlier in the week that Obama was unlikely to tour storm damage immediately after Isaac had passed. Visits that come too soon, they said, can get in the way of recovery or divert resources.
“Obviously when you’re president of the United States, coordinating travel carries with it unique logistical challenges,” Carney said Friday. “It was the assessment of the president’s team, working with all the people involved in operations as well as people on the ground, that Monday was a good day.”