LAS VEGAS – Remarks by President Bush to the National Guard Association of the United States. As prepared for delivery, Sept. 14.
Thank you for that warm welcome. It's great to be back in Nevada. Thank you for inviting me to join you for your 126th national conference. It's a pleasure to be with the brave men and women of the National Guard. You have had many famous Americans in your ranks, including men named Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, and Truman. Nineteen individuals have served both in the National Guard and as President of the United States, and I am proud to be one of them.
The men and women of the National Guard are deployed around the world today, fighting the forces of terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, and helping Americans threatened with natural disasters like hurricanes here at home. I am proud to be their Commander in Chief, and I respect and honor all of those who serve in the United States Armed Forces — active, Guard, and Reserve.
The Guard has been fighting for America since before America was a Nation. From its birth in the 1630's, the Guard protected the early colonists and helped win our War of Independence. Today, each of you carries on the great tradition of those early citizen-soldiers, who picked up muskets to defend our freedom. The weapons have changed, and so have our enemies, but one thing remains the same: the men and women of the Guard stand ready to put on the uniform and fight for America. Our country is stronger, and our freedom more secure, because each of you has volunteered to serve.
You have taken an oath to stand by America in times of crisis, war, and emergency. And you are fulfilling that oath in many ways. Across the State of Florida, thousands of Guard members have mobilized in response to Hurricanes Charley and Frances. They are helping to control traffic, provide security, conduct search and rescue operations, and distribute water and food. As one resident of Punta Gorda, Florida put it, "I don't know what this town would do without the National Guard." When tragedy strikes, Americans can always count on the Guard.
When tragedy came on September 11th, 2001, the response of the Guard was outstanding. A thousand Guard volunteers came forward to help that day, and by sunrise on September 12th, more than 5,000 Guard volunteers were on the job. In the past three years, Guard units have defended the American homeland against further attack ? and you have taken the battle to our enemies abroad. The National Guard has played a critical role in every aspect of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. More than 185,000 Guard members have been called up to serve on every front in the war on terror. You are fighting terrorist enemies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and across the globe, so we do not have to face them here at home. America is safer because of your service.
I also want to thank your families, who share in your sacrifice. There are few things more difficult in life than seeing a loved one go off to war. When the call to duty comes, your families miss you and worry about you. By standing behind you, they also serve our country. America is grateful for the service and sacrifice of all our military families.
Your service would not be possible without the understanding and support of your employers. In offices, schools, factories, and hospitals across this country, businesses do without your talents so that you can serve your Nation. Employers across the country are supporting the Guard, because they know the stakes in this war are high. These companies are showing their patriotism, and they have the gratitude of our Nation.
I know this time of call-ups, alerts, mobilizations, and deployments has been difficult for Guard members and their families and employers.
When our Nation must call on you, we owe you some things in return. We are working to provide you at least 30 days notification before you are mobilized, so you have time to make arrangements. We are working to give you as much certainty as possible about the length of your mobilization — you deserve to know when you can expect to resume civilian life. And we are working to minimize the number of extensions and repeat mobilizations, by moving forces out of low-demand specialties, such as heavy artillery, and increasing the number of available troops with skills that are in high-demand — such as military police, civil affairs, and special operations.
We are also improving benefits and the quality of life for our Nation's citizen-soldiers. My Administration has spent almost 14 billion dollars for construction, maintenance and support for Guard and Reserve facilities across the United States. We have expanded health care benefits for Guard and Reserve forces and their family members, giving them access to the military's TRICARE system for up to 90 days before they report and 180 days after deactivation — and I will ask Congress to make that expansion permanent. I have also asked Congress to increase the monthly educational benefit for Guard and Reserve forces mobilized for more than 90 days in the war on terror by 40 to 80 percent — depending on the length of their mobilization. I urge Congress to approve this important legislation for men and women of the Guard and Reserve.
America needs the service of our Guardsmen and women, because we are living in dangerous times. My most solemn duty as President is to protect the American people. If America shows uncertainty and weakness in this decade, the world will drift toward tragedy. This will not happen on my watch.
Since that terrible morning three years ago, America has been at war. We have fought the terrorists across the earth ? not for pride, not for power, but because the lives of our citizens are at stake. Our strategy is clear. We are defending the homeland, transforming our military, and reforming and strengthening our intelligence services. We are staying on the offensive. We are striking terrorists abroad so we do not have to face them here at home. And we will advance liberty in the broader Middle East and around the world, because freedom will bring a future of hope and peace we all long for. And we will prevail.
Our strategy is succeeding. Four years ago, Afghanistan was the home base of Al Qaeda; Pakistan was a transit point for terrorist groups; Saudi Arabia was fertile ground for terrorist fundraising; Libya was secretly pursuing nuclear weapons; Iraq was a gathering threat; and Al Qaeda was largely unchallenged as it planned attacks. Because we acted, the government of a free Afghanistan is fighting terror; Pakistan is capturing terrorist leaders; Saudi Arabia is making raids and arrests; Libya is dismantling its weapons programs; the army of a free Iraq is fighting for freedom; and more than three-quarters of Al Qaeda's key members and associates have been detained or killed. We have led, many have joined, and America and the world are safer.
All this progress involved careful diplomacy, clear moral purpose, and some tough decisions. And the toughest came on Iraq. We knew Saddam Hussein's record of aggression and support for terror. We knew his long history of pursuing, and even using, weapons of mass destruction. And we know that after September 11th, our country must think differently. We must take threats seriously before they fully materialize.
In Saddam Hussein, we saw a threat. I went to the United States Congress. Members of both political parties, including my opponent and his running mate, looked at the same intelligence, remembered the same history, and came to the same conclusion. They voted to authorize the use of force.
I went to the United Nations. The UN Security Council looked at the same intelligence, remembered the same history, and came to the same conclusion.
They passed a resolution, 15 to nothing, demanding the dictator disclose, disarm, or face serious consequences. The free world gave Saddam Hussein another chance, a final chance, to meet his responsibilities. As he had for more than a decade, he defied the world. He systematically deceived the weapons inspectors. So I faced a decision. Do I forget the lessons of September 11th and take the word of a madman, or do I take action to defend our country? Given that choice, I will defend America every time.
Because we acted to defend our country, more than 50 million people in Afghanistan and Iraq are free. In Afghanistan, more than 10 million citizens have registered to vote in the October presidential election. Despite ongoing acts of violence, Iraq now has a strong Prime Minister, a national council, and national elections are scheduled for January. Our Nation is standing with the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, because when America gives its word, America must keep its word.
We are also serving a vital and historic cause that will make our country safer. Free societies in the Middle East will be hopeful societies, which no longer feed resentments and breed violence for export.
Free governments in the Middle East will fight terrorists instead of harboring them, and that helps us keep the peace. So our mission in Afghanistan and Iraq is clear: We will help new leaders to train their armies, and move toward elections, and get on the path of stability and democracy as quickly as possible. And then our troops will return home with the honor they have earned.
Our troops in battle must have all the resources, all the tools, and all the support they need for victory. Last fall I went to Congress and proposed 87 billion dollars in funding for body armor, spare parts, ammunition, fuel, and other supplies needed by our troops doing battle in Afghanistan and Iraq. My request received overwhelming bipartisan support.
Only 12 senators voted against it. Two of those Senators are my opponent and his running mate. Only four Senators who voted to authorize the use of force turned around and voted against funding our troops. And two of those Senators are my opponent and his running mate. When asked to explain his vote, my opponent said, "I actually did vote for the 87 billion dollars before I voted against it." Then he said he was "proud" of that vote.
Then, when pressed, he said it was a "complicated" matter. There is nothing complicated about supporting our troops in combat.
Last week my opponent questioned the cost of our operations in Iraq, and said the money could have been better spent elsewhere. The problem is, just last summer he had a completely different view. Asked whether he believed we should reduce funding for operations in Iraq, Senator Kerry at that time replied: "No. I think we should increase it." Asked by how much, he said: "By whatever number of billions of dollars it takes to win. It is critical that the United States of America be successful in Iraq."
It is critical 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. Our troops, our friends and allies, and our enemies must know where America stands ? and that America will stand firm. We cannot waver ? because our enemies won't. As we saw with such horror on September 11th, as the people of Russia saw in the terrible massacre of innocent children there, we are up against people who show no shame, no remorse, no hint of humanity — and we must confront them clearly and consistently — not just some of the time, but all of the time.
Our troops understand the importance of our mission. Sergeant Bob Kells returned from Iraq a few months ago, where he was deployed with the Rhode Island National Guard. "We saw what Saddam Hussein did to these people," he says. "We saw the graves. The people would lead us to them — Now they're free. They never had that before. And we did it for them."
He says of the insurgents and terrorists we are fighting in Iraq today, "they want us out. But they're a minority — the Iraqi people want democracy. The insurgents are absolute cowards. They fight behind women and children but better fighting them there than over here."
Sergeant Kells is correct. Our mission in Iraq is critical. And our men and women in uniform — active, Guard, and Reserve — are doing a superb job for America. Because of your service and sacrifice, we are defeating the terrorists where they live and plan and making America safer. Because of you, women in Afghanistan are no longer shot in a sports stadium. Because of you, the people of Iraq no longer fear being executed and left in mass graves. Because of you, the world is more just and will be more peaceful.
I believe in the transformational power of liberty. The wisest use of American strength is to advance freedom. I believe that America is called to lead the cause of freedom in a new century. I believe that millions in the Middle East plead in silence for their liberty. I believe that given the chance, they will embrace the most honorable form of government ever devised by man. I believe all these things because freedom is not America's gift to the world, freedom is the Almighty God's gift to every man and woman in this world.
For all Americans, these years in our history will always stand apart. There are quiet times in the life of a nation when little is expected of leaders; this isn't one of those times. This is a time when we need firm resolve, clear vision, and a deep faith in the values that make us a great Nation.
None of us will ever forget that week when one era ended and another began. Three years ago today, on September the 14th, 2001, I stood in the ruins of the Twin Towers. It's a day I'll never forget. Workers in hard hats were yelling at me, "Whatever it takes." A guy grabbed me by the arm and he said, "Do not let me down."
As we all did that day, these men and women searching through the rubble took it personally. I took it personally. I have a responsibility that goes on. I wake up every morning thinking about how to better protect our country. I will never relent in defending America, whatever it takes.
I know that is your commitment as well. You've shown it by your commitment to service, your standards of honor, and your performance of duty. America's citizen soldiers reflect great credit on our military, and on our country. Thank you for your service. God bless you all.