President George W Bush, his Vietnam-era military service the subject of dispute, today said he was proud of his stint in the Air National Guard and told members strained by today’s wars that he was trying to make their lives easier.
“Nineteen individuals have served in the National Guard and as president of the United States, and I am proud to be one of them,” President Bush said in prepared remarks of his speech at the National Guard Association of the United States conference in Las Vegas.
Members of the Guard are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and helping recovery efforts after Florida hurricanes.
The president said. “I am proud to be their commander in chief, and I respect and honour all of those who serve in the United States Armed Forces – active, Guard and Reserve.”
In the prepared remarks, President Bush made no mention of the election-year tempest over unexplained gaps in his service in the Guard.
The Democratic National Committee sought to fuel the controversy by releasing a three-minute video accusing Bush of using family connections to get into the Guard and out of the Vietnam War.
The Army is relying heavily on National Guard and Reserve combat forces for the Iraq mission, which has placed enormous strains on some members, their families and their employers.
In all, more than 225,000 guardsmen – roughly half the force – have been called to active duty since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
The president said he recognised those difficulties, and said his administration was working to ease their burden.
“I know this time of call-ups, alerts, mobilisations and deployments has been difficult for Guard members and their families and employers,” he said.
“We are working to provide you at least 30 days notification before you are mobilised, so you have time to make arrangements,” he said.
“We are working to give you as much certainty as possible about the length of your mobilisation - you deserve to know when you can expect to resume civilian life.”
The Pentagon also was trying to minimise the number of deployment extensions and “repeat mobilisations”, he added.
President Bush did not address the long-unanswered questions about his service three decades ago in the Guard, or respond to accusations from Democrats that he used family ties to avoid the Vietnam War.
Democrat John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, will address the same group on Thursday.
President Bush was speaking at the National Guard conference in the afternoon following a morning campaign event in Arapahoe County, which he won by more than 15,000 votes in 2000.
The rally near Denver was focused on health care, but the crowd loudly applauded his tough talk against terrorists.
“We’re staying on the offensive,” the president said. “We’ll strike the terrorists abroad so we will not have to face them at home.”
Two hecklers disrupted his speech, and the crowd shouted them down with chants of “Four more years!” As the protesters were removed, one shouted “Get outta here!” and the other held up the two-finger peace sign.
The battle against terrorism has been the rallying cry of President Bush’s race for re-election in a presidential campaign fraught with verbal fisticuffs between him and Senator John Kerry.
President Bush holds a commanding lead over Senator Kerry among veterans and their families.
An AP-Ipsos poll last week found the president was the choice of 58 per cent and Senator Kerry 38 per cent. In the poll, veterans and their families said President Bush was stronger and more honest than Senator Kerry.