LAS VEGAS – As questions continue to swirl surrounding the authenticity of documents saying he didn't fulfill his National Guard service, President Bush (search) on Tuesday refrained from addressing the controversy in a speech to America's National Guardsmen.
"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," he said.
Bush instead honored the sacrifice of America's National Guardsmen and women playing a pivotal role in the War on Terror.
"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," Bush told the 126th National Guard Association of the United States conference in Las Vegas.
For his part, Bush's Democratic presidential challenger, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search), was in Ohio on Tuesday, talking with the state's seniors about the rising cost of prescription drugs and Medicare premiums. He did not speak directly to the document controversy. Kerry is expected to address the association on Thursday.
The Kerry camp did issue a swift response to Bush's speech but focused on Iraq, arguing that the situation there is getting worse, not better.
"Today, we heard more of the same distortions from the president about the situation in Iraq. George W. Bush keeps saying that things are getting better even when we all know that's just not true," Kerry said in the statement. "So I'll be straight with you: things are getting worse ... The situation is serious and we need a president who will set a new direction and be straight with the American people."
Bush did not directly address the Guard records controversy swirling around unexplained gaps in his service in the Texas Air National Guard (search) in his address.
"Our country is stronger, and our freedom more secure, because each of you has volunteered to serve," Bush told the Guardsmen and women. "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."
Some of those ways include helping respond to Hurricanes Charley and Frances, responding to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and helping boost U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, the president said.
"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," Bush said, also thanking families of Guardsmen and women and employers of Guard members for their sacrifices. "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."
In all, the Washington-based association says more than 225,000 guardsmen and women — roughly half the force — have been called to active duty since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
"I know this time of call-ups, alerts, mobilizations, and deployments has been difficult for Guard members and their families and employers," the president said. "When our nation must call on you, we owe you some things in return."
The government is working to provide the nation's weekend warriors with at least 30 days notification before they are mobilized, the president said, and to give them the best estimate as to the length of that mobilization and to minimize repeat call ups.
Bush noted that more than $14 billion has been spent for construction, maintenance and support for U.S. Guard and Reserve facilities, health care benefits have been increased, and that he has asked Congress to increase the monthly educational benefit for Guard and Reserve forces mobilized for more than 90 days by 40 to 80 percent, depending on the length of their mobilization.
"America needs the service of our Guardsmen and women, because we are living in dangerous times," Bush said. "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."
In Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush vowed that U.S. troops will only stay as long as it takes to put those countries on the road to democracy. That includes training new armies and helping with elections.
"And then our troops will return home with the honor they have earned," Bush said.
Hours before Bush addressed the convention, members of Military Families Speak Out (search), a group representing 1,700 military families, told stories about relatives who have served in Iraq or have been killed in the conflict.
At a news conference, the relatives accused the Bush administration of betraying Guard soldiers who signed up to serve at home, but were sent overseas for extended periods of time to fight a "war based on lies."
During his remarks, Bush challenged Kerry's vote on the $87 billion supplemental funding requested for Congress to help fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as his so-called "flip-flop" on support for the war in general.
"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," Bush said. "Our troops, our friends and allies, and our enemies must know where America stands and that America will stand firm. We cannot waiver because our enemies won't."
An AP-Ipsos poll last week found Bush was the choice of 53 percent of likely voters and Kerry the choice of 43 percent. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader took 2 percent. In the poll, veterans and their families said Bush was stronger and more honest than Kerry.
Bush's speech came after a morning rally in Arapahoe County, Colo., to promote his health care agenda. It was Bush's fourth visit to the Centennial State, his first this year.
Democrats Take Offensive on Guard Issue
Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee (search) went on the offensive on the allegations of Bush's Guard service.
On Monday, a retired four-star general who headed the U.S. Air Force during Desert Storm, Gen. Tony McPeak, and Adm. Stansfield Turner, former director of central intelligence under President Carter, said Bush dishonored the National Guard by misusing and mistreating its servicemen and women.
"The president dishonored the Guard decades ago, and he dishonors them today by the way he misuses and mistreats them," Turner said. "He's turned our Guard and Reserve forces into a backdoor draft."
And on Tuesday, the DNC was unveiling a new 2-1/2 minute video pointing out the "inconsistencies" in Bush's Guard record while at the same time praising today's National Guard. The video was being sent to 21 battleground states, but the DNC has not bought any media time to air the video.
New documents disclosed last week suggest Bush ignored a direct order from a superior officer to take a physical exam and lost his status as a Texas Air National Guard pilot in the 1970s because he failed to meet military performance standards and did not get the physical.
But the authenticity of the documents obtained by an unidentified source by CBS News have been repeatedly questioned. They purportedly came from the personal records of a deceased officer.
On Monday night's "CBS Evening News," anchor Dan Rather said again that the network "believes the documents are authentic."
The lead expert retained by CBS News to examine the memos told The Washington Post, however, that he examined only the signature of the late officer who purportedly wrote the documents and made no attempt to authenticate the documents themselves.
"There's no way that I, as a document expert, can authenticate them," Marcel Matley said in a telephone interview from San Francisco. The main reason, he said, is that they are "copies" that are "far removed" from the originals.
A detailed comparison of the memos by The Washington Post reveals dozens of inconsistencies ranging from conflicting military terminology to different word-processing techniques, the newspaper reported.
"I am personally 100 percent sure that they are fake," said Joseph M. Newcomer, who worked on electronic typesetting techniques in the early 1970s. Newcomer said he had produced virtually exact replicas of the CBS documents using Microsoft Word formatting and the Times New Roman font and explains on his Web site why he thinks the documents are forgeries.
Richard Williams, a retired document expert who worked for the FBI for 23 years, told FOX News he also believes the documents are fake.
"In all probability, the signature is a forgery," Williams said. But "you would need the original before opining beyond a shadow of a doubt."
While CBS claims it obtained the documents from an "unimpeachable source," the National Guard operations officer who served during the time in question says the documents are absurd.
"Anybody that knew anything about the Guard in that period can just read those memos and see that they are completely unrealistic," U.S. Air Force Col. Earl Lively, director of operations for the Texas Air National Guard State Headquarters during 1972 and 1973 told FOX News.
Former CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg told FOX News on Tuesday it's not surprising that CBS is standing by its source, but he added that at the very least, the network should tell the public something about that source, such as where he or she works or whether he or she is critical of the Bush administration.
"If it turns out that this source has anything to do with the Democratic Party … this is the biggest story of the year," Goldberg said. "It not only sinks John Kerry's candidacy but it is lights out for CBS News as we know it."
Even first lady Laura Bush opined on the issue.
"You know, they probably are altered and they probably are forgeries, and I think that's terrible, really," she told Radio Iowa in an interview on Monday.
White House: Kerry Camp Behind Attacks
The White House said Bush did not take the physical because he was not going to be in a flying capacity with an Alabama National Guard unit where he transferred so he could work on a political campaign.
"Democrats and the Kerry campaign are orchestrating the old attacks because he's falling behind in the polls," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Monday.
Questions also have been raised about Kerry, who won three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star for his Navy service in Vietnam.
FOX News' Liza Porteus, Ellen Uchimiya, Kelly Wright and The Associated Press contributed to this report.