President Bush kept the focus on fighting terrorism Tuesday in a speech to members of the National Guard, part of the U.S. military's reserve forces. Mr. Bush's own service in the Guard during the Vietnam War has become an issue in this presidential election campaign.
The president says the National Guard has a long tradition of service to America in times of trouble, from the war for independence to the current war on terror.
"You have had many famous Americans in your ranks, including men named Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, and Truman," said Mr. Bush. "19 individuals have served both in the Guard and as President of the United States, and I am proud to be one of them."
Mr. Bush served in the National Guard during the height of the Vietnam War, a time when Guard members were not deployed abroad.
Critics say he joined the Air National Guard in Texas to avoid combat duty, and charge he got lenient treatment when it came to fulfilling his military obligations.
The president made no mention of the controversy in his speech to the National Guard convention in Las Vegas, Nevada. Instead, he devoted the bulk of his remarks to the need to stay on course in the war on terror. And once again, he accused his Democratic opponent Senator John Kerry of changing positions on a whim.
"Our troops, our friends and allies, and our enemies must know where America stands and that America will stand firm," he said. "We cannot waver because our enemies will not waver. As we saw with such horror on September 11, as the people of Russia saw in the terrible massacre of innocent children there, we are up against people who show no shame, no remorse, no hint of humanity and we must confront them clearly and consistently not just some of the time, but all of the time."
Today, members of the National Guard are on duty in both Afghanistan and Iraq, part of the largest deployment of Guard units abroad in roughly half a century. Many joined the Guard expecting to serve almost exclusively on an as-needed basis to handle emergencies in their home states while holding down jobs or going to college.
The president said he is trying to ease the burden for Guard members, their families and their employers. But the Kerry campaign took exception to his words and provided reporters with access to Guard officers and family members who support the Democratic candidate.
General Gerald Sajer played a leading role for many years in the Pennsylvania National Guard. He said the Bush administration, in its drive to provide needed forces for Iraq and Afghanistan, is sending Guard units abroad with scant notice and sometimes insufficient training.
"Now what that has done is this. We have sent troops over there without their individual protective gear, we have humvees without the armor on it, we have retrained artillery men and tankers into so-called MPs and all of this is done in a very hurried way," he said.
In a written statement, Senator Kerry called the situation in Iraq serious. He said America needs a president who will take a new direction and will not mislead the public about the cost of the war in terms of money and human lives. The Democratic Party candidate, a Vietnam War veteran, will address the National Guard convention on Thursday.