FORT POLK, La. – In a speech foreshadowing major themes he'll stress in his re-election campaign, President Bush told members of the military Tuesday that he will never waver in the war on terrorism.
"There is no doubt that the enemy will be defeated, and freedom will prevail," Bush told National Guard members at Fort Polk (search), La.
"My resolve is the same today as the day when I walked in the rubble of the Twin Towers. America will not permit terrorists to threaten us with the world's most deadly weapons."
Bush addressed the military one week after he was dogged by stories about his military record during the Vietnam War (search). He didn't mention the controversy.
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 that "the enemy will be defeated."
The president spoke to full-time soldiers and National Guard (search) members, thanking them for their service in the U.S.-led Afghan and Iraqi wars that have been waged during his administration.
He 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.
One topic Bush did not bring up was the controversy over his own military record. Last week, the White House released records to show Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard (search) during the Vietnam War.
In the address, Bush reminded troops about the stakes in the war on terrorism and in Iraq.
"Military families have faced many hardships in this time of testing – and you have faced them together," Bush said. "This generation of our military has been called to duty to fight and to win the first war of the 21st century."
Fort Polk (search) is home to a regiment due to return soon from a year of service in Iraq. The 4,000-strong 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment (search), in Iraq for nearly a year, is to return sometime in March or April.
"The American people appreciate your sacrifice," Bush told troops. "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."
Twelve soldiers assigned to Fort Polk have died in Iraq, including two soldiers killed by a roadside bomb while on mounted patrol last week, according to Paula Schlag, a base spokeswoman.
Others training here are headed to Iraq in coming weeks.
Boosting Troop Morale
Bush hammered home his case for going to war with Iraq in the first place, a controversial move that has been attacked again in recent weeks because of incomplete and faulty intelligence.
"We will not live in the shadow of gathering threats," the president said. "After 12 years of deception by Saddam Hussein, he was given one final chance. ... Saddam Hussein chose defiance."
He said Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, used them on his own people and hid them. The existence of WMD is at the center of the Iraq war controversy.
Chief Warrant Officer Kevin Floyd said Bush's visit provided a welcome morale boost. "It's more important in a time of war," he said.
The deaths of soldiers assigned to Fort Polk has hit hard here, Floyd said. "We're all one big family," Floyd said.
At the same time, many Americans have paid too little attention to soldiers killed in Iraq, he said. "Our priorities are out of whack — Janet Jackson creates more of a ripple than soldiers dying in Iraq," Floyd said.
Chief Warrant Officer Robert Shaffer said he hoped the Iraq mission was worth the cost. More than 530 U.S. troops have died there.
"You pray about it, you believe you're making the right decision, and history will determine that at some later date," Shaffer said.
Bush and the Texas Air National Guard
The president's visit was 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.
Most soldiers interviewed here declined to offer their opinions on the president's service.
One Army soldier, who declined to give his name, said that what mattered most was that Bush had served in the military.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (search) 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," the Massachusetts senator said.
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," he said.
The 198,000-acre base here houses the Army's Joint Readiness Training Center (search) for training exercises with the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force.
Fox News' Catherine Donaldson-Evans and The Associated Press contributed to this report.