CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wis. – In a gesture to troops serving unexpectedly long tours in Iraq, President Bush (search) announced an election-year proposal Wednesday to enhance education benefits for active-duty National Guardsmen and reservists.
"These brave Americans put their jobs on hold and leave their family behind when we call," Bush said during a campaign bus tour through the election swing state of Wisconsin.
More than 400,000 men and women in the reserves and the National Guard (search) have been mobilized since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Today, just under 150,000 are serving.
"Under current rules, their education benefits don't reflect the high value of service we place on their time and duty," Bush said.
He proposed to increase monthly education benefits for all Guard members and reservists on active duty for more than 90 consecutive days.
The president also proposed giving states grants to help children in military families who have to move. "We're going to put out grant money to help states ease the burden so it's more seamless for families to go from one state to the next," Bush said.
Democrat John Kerry's (search) campaign called Bush's proposals political gimmicks.
"We need a president who is committed to protecting National Guard and reservists every day, not just in the days before the election," said campaign spokesman Phil Singer. "John Kerry (search) is a combat-tested veteran who has spent his career advocating for veterans and their families."
Kerry's campaign said the administration has compensated for failed policy by using the Guard and Reserve. "Reservists are overburdened and many may leave the military in large numbers because they can no longer make military service compatible with their lives," the campaign said.
Bush's proposals came the same day Kerry spoke at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (search) convention in Ohio — another swing state. Kerry told his fellow veterans that he, not Bush, was their "true brother in arms."
Bush, on the other hand, speaking here at Kell Container Corp., said: "What I'm telling you is we'll continue to stand side by side with those who wear the uniform and the family members of those who wear the uniform."
According to the Veterans Administration, the educational benefit for active-duty troops is a maximum of $800 a month. But for National Guard and reservists who have been called up for two years or more, it's $282 — a difference of $518.
Bush also made U.S. soldiers an important theme in St. Paul, Minn., the final stop on the day's bus tour. He told thousands of cheering supporters that he was justified in ordering the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.
He said he disagreed with Kerry, who he wants to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq within six months of taking office. Bush said it would send the wrong message to U.S. enemies, who say `Fine, I'll stay six months and one day.'
"It sends the wrong signal to our troops," Bush continued. "It sends the wrong signal to the Iraqis. You see they're watching carefully. They're wondering whether or not we will stand with them as they do the hard work for a free society.
"So long as I'm the president when America gives its word, America will keep its word."
Bush lost Wisconsin in 2000 by just 5,708 votes, and is working to rally support among undecided voters outside the main Democratic strongholds of Madison and Milwaukee.
"I think Wisconsin is 'W' country," Bush said in the state as a supporter tipped his cowboy hat to the president and others waved large red, white, and blue W's.
Still, at each stop, protesters demonstrated against the war and called for Bush's ouster. They carried signs that said "Re-defeat Bush," "Not Welcome" and "Yee Haw is not foreign policy."
This was Bush's third bus trip through the state. Last month, his bus rumbled through eastern Wisconsin, and in May its route hugged the southwestern border along the Mississippi River.
"You know why I'm coming back?" Bush asked the crowd assembled under cloudy skies at the shipping carton business. "We were close last time and with your help this time we will carry Wisconsin."
Kenneth R. Mayer, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the area in and around Chippewa Falls generally leans Democratic, yet there are swing voters to target.
"They're hunting where they think the ducks are," Mayer said. "They're firing up the base and also going out into areas where they think they have a chance of flipping some people."