President Bush sought to buck up troop morale at a base that has supplied more than 10,000 soldiers to the war on terrorism — and lost a dozen in Iraq — vowing Tuesday that “the enemy will be defeated.”
“My resolve is the same as it was on the day when I walked in the rubble of the twin towers,” Bush said, his voice breaking. “I will not relent until this threat to America is removed.”
Bush spoke to a sea of thousands of rowdy troops here, who responded with hearty howls of “hoo-ah!” at his applause lines. “There is no doubt that the enemy will be defeated and freedom will prevail,” he said.
“America depends on our military to meet dangers abroad and keep our country safe,” Bush said. “The American people appreciate your sacrifice. Our government owes you more than gratitude; we must always make sure America’s soldiers are well equipped and well trained to fight this war on terror.”
Bush to meet with Guard members
After trying to quell stories about his Vietnam-era military record, Bush sought Tuesday to put that controversy behind him by meeting with members of the National Guard. Twelve soldiers assigned to Fort Polk have died in Iraq, including two soldiers killed by a roadside bomb last week, according to Paula Schlag, a base spokeswoman.
Bush was to meet privately with the relatives of fallen soldiers, then have lunch with Guard members.
White House officials said Bush was reaching out to Guard members here because nearly 40 percent of the troops heading to Iraq in the next rotation will be Guardsmen.
Fort Polk is home to a regiment due to return soon from a year of service in Iraq. The 4,000-strong 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, in Iraq since last March, is to return sometime in March or April. It is to be replaced by a brigade from the 1st Cavalry Division in Fort Hood, Texas, as part of a larger troop rotation announced earlier by the Pentagon.
The president’s visit is bound to serve as a reminder of a story that consumed the White House last week: Bush’s record of service in the Texas Air National Guard in the early 1970s.
At issue is whether he showed up for service in Alabama after receiving permission to serve there temporarily in 1972-1973. Bush says he recalls serving there, but there is scant documentation proving it.
Late Friday, the White House released hundreds of pages of documents it said comprised Bush’s entire military record, but the records offered no definitive answers.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry has kept silent on the flap in recent days, but he used Bush’s trip to Louisiana to criticize the president’s treatment of the military.
“With Kerry, veterans will have a veteran in the White House who fights to make sure they get the benefits they deserve,” Kerry said.
Kerry criticizes administration's treatment of vets
Kerry said Bush’s policies had threatened to undermine troops’ pay, health care and battlefield protection.
“John Kerry will keep America’s promise to those who served their country bravely,” the Democratic presidential front-runner said.
The base Bush was visiting houses the Army’s Joint Readiness Training Center for training exercises with the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force.
Fort Polk is also home to a variety of units — the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment affiliated with the XVIII Airborne Corps, and the Warrior Brigade, which contains several units with early deploying wartime missions. Medical, dental and military police commands are also assigned to the post.
Fort Polk has played a role in the war on terrorism by providing training for the Army’s light infantry and special operations forces and by deploying troops to Operations Enduring Freedom and Noble Eagle. Fort Polk soldiers also participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom.