Bush recognizes troops and veterans

LAS VEGAS –President Bush told veterans yesterday he was proud of his time in the Texas Air National Guard and sought to deflect questions about his Vietnam-era service by turning the subject to what he said were rival John Kerry’s equivocations on the war in Iraq.

“What’s critical is that the president of the United States speak clearly and consistently at this time of great threat in our world, and not change positions because of expediency or pressure,” Bush told his applauding audience in a speech to the National Guard Association of the United States.

Bush did not address questions that have been raised 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. Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, addresses the same group tomorrow and has directed his allies in the national Democratic Party to make an issue of Bush’s service.

“Nineteen individuals have served both in the National Guard and as president of the United States,” Bush said, “and I’m proud to be one of them.”

The president then outlined the history of America’s citizen-soldiers and touted his efforts to improve living and work condition for today’s Guard. Then he turned to Iraq, noting as he does in almost every campaign stop that Kerry and Democratic running mate John Edwards joined most members of the Senate to give him authority in 2002 to wage war.

He said Kerry and Edwards later voted against money for the war, not mentioning that his own administration once threatened a veto of the funding measure or that Kerry had supported one version of the bill. He noted that Kerry has both called for more money for Iraq and asserted that Bush has squandered money there that could be spent in the United States.

After casting his rival as indecisive, Bush said, “Our troops, our friends and our allies, and our enemies, must know where America stands and that America will stand firm. We cannot waver because our enemies will not waver.”

It is a major part of Bush’s re-election strategy to convince voters, especially those wary of his economic and Iraq policies, that he is the only candidate in the race steady enough to lead the nation at war.

More than 200 protesters echoed those sentiments outside Bush’s speech site, including Bill Shettler, 67-year-old retiree who carried a sign that read: “Bush is an idiot. 1,000 lives wasted.” At a news conference for a group of families opposed to the war, Al Zappala, a 64-year-old retired Defense Department employee from Philadelphia, said his son, Sgt. Sherwood Baker, was the first Pennsylvania National Guard soldier to die in action since World War II.

“Sherwood was sent to Iraq under false pretenses,” he said. “This war was brought about by lies by the administration.”

The National Guard and Reserve comprise about 40 percent of the U.S. force in Iraq.

Bush holds a commanding lead over Kerry among veterans and their families.

His appearance yesterday came less than a week after the White House released memos saying the president was suspended from flying fighter jets for failing to meet the standards of the Texas Air National Guard. Though questions have been raised about their authenticity, the documents helped rekindle long-unanswered questions about Bush’s service. Did any member of his prominent family pull strings to get him in the Guard? Was he ever disciplined while serving?

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush voters are concerned about the future, not such questions. The bottom line, he said, is that Bush was honorably discharged.

Democrats say the documents show that Bush lied as president when he said that he did his Guard duty. Under the direction of the Kerry campaign, the Democratic National Committee launched “Operation Fortunate Son” on yesterday, releasing a video criticizing Bush’s actions during Vietnam.

Kerry received three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star during his four-month tour of Vietnam, and has made his service a cornerstone of his campaign to unseat the incumbent commander in chief. Bush has taken a lead in polls after a successful nominating convention and efforts by his GOP allies to question the legitimacy of Kerry’s combat honors.