Mitt Romney addresses the National Guard Association. (Jim Young/Reuters)
Speaking on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Mitt Romney said he would refrain from criticizing President Barack Obama on such a solemn day, insisting the focus should be on remembering the lives lost and thanking those who "fought and still fight" to protect the country.
On politicking, Romney told the National Guard Association convention in Reno, Nev., "There is a time and place for that, but this day is not it."
While Romney never mentioned his Democratic opponent by name, politics wasn't exactly absent from the GOP candidate's speech. Romney used his appearance to offer a sometimes not-so-subtle comparison with Obama, arguing, among other things, that the country should be building up the military, not dismantling it with "devastating" budget cuts.
He also took a shot at the current president, telling Guard members that "America must lead the free world" and "demonstrate confidence in our cause, clarity in our purpose and resolve in the application of our military might."
"We can all agree that our men and women in the field deserve a clear mission, that they deserve the resources and resolute leadership they need to complete that mission, and that they deserve a country that will provide for their needs when they come home," Romney said.
Romney's speech came amid days of criticism from both Republicans and Democrats for his decision to omit mention of the troops or the war in Afghanistan from his speech at the Republican National Convention. The GOP candidate has defended the omission, pointing to a lengthy speech he gave to the American Legion the day before accepting the GOP nomination at the RNC as proof that he wasn't trying to avoid foreign policy issues.
But Romney used his 9/11 speech to reiterate his policy toward Afghanistan, calling for troops to come home by the end of 2014—the same plan Obama has endorsed. And he spoke at length about his admiration for the military, commending members of the National Guard for their role in protecting the country after 9/11 and in handling natural disasters like Hurricane Isaac.
"I respect you. I admire you. I respect and admire the men and women who serve with you," Romney, who had been reading from prepared remarks, ad-libbed at one point.
Echoing lines from his usual stump speech, Romney argued that the country should be building up the military, not reducing it as troops come home from the war.
"Our armed forces have been stretched to the brink, and that is all the more reason to repair and rebuild," he said. "We can always find places to end waste. But we cannot cancel program after program, we cannot jeopardize critical missions, and we cannot cut corners in the quality of the equipment and training we provide."
And he called for "serious and urgent reform" in how the country cares for its veterans, arguing that they deserve treatment that's "second to none."
"The backlog of disability claims needs to be eliminated, the unconscionable waits for mental health treatment need to be dramatically shortened, and the suicide rate among active-duty soldiers and veterans must be treated like the emergency it is," Romney said.
The former Massachusetts governor used the moment to share his own recollections of where he was when the nation came under attack 11 years ago. He told the crowd he had been scheduled to be in Battery Park, just blocks from the World Trade Center site. But he ended up being in Washington, D.C., where he was working on security issues related to the 2002 Winter Olympics. Leaving town, he came across the Pentagon, which had been struck by one of the hijacked planes.
"The highway I was on came within a few hundred yards of the Pentagon, which had been hit. Cars had stopped where they were, and people had gotten out, watching in horror," Romney said. "I could smell burning fuel and concrete and metal. It was the smell of war, something I never imagined I would smell in America.
"I wish I could say the world is less dangerous now," Romney added. But, he said, "we live in a time of turbulence and disruption."
Citing the 9/11 anniversary, Romney called on the country to "renew our resolve to protect America from the designs of evil men."