WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is serving up an election-year reminder that he ended the Iraq war, visiting a Texas military base two years to the day that he formally declared the end of the U.S. combat mission.
Obama's visit Friday to the vast Fort Bliss Army post in El Paso underscores a point Obama has made repeatedly on the campaign trail: He made a promise to end the unpopular Iraq war and kept it. Obama also visited Fort Bliss on Aug. 31, 2010, the day he announced the end of the U.S. combat role.
The White House says the visit is official business — not campaign-related, although the distinction is not always clear. Obama will speak to troops and have a round-table discussion with service members and military families, the White House said.
Obama returns to the campaign trail on Saturday with appearances in Iowa.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the visit to Fort Bliss will highlight administration efforts to support U.S. service members and their families, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those efforts include attempts to combat what Carney called "unseen wounds" of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, including post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
Obama on Friday was to sign an executive order that would direct federal agencies to expand their efforts at addressing the mental health needs of veterans, service members and their families and to increase measures aimed at preventing suicide.
Among the steps spelled out in the order is an increase in the number of Department of Veterans Affairs counselors. It also orders the Pentagon and the Department of Health and Human Services to undertake a mental health study aimed at improving prevention, diagnoses and treatment of post-traumatic stress syndrome and traumatic brain injury.
Fort Bliss soldiers participated in the Iraqi invasion in 2003 and were among the last to serve in combat roles there. The post endured significant losses during the Iraq war.
Carney told reporters Thursday that the visit was about more than politics. He called Obama's record on defense issues substantive and said the president had a "profound commitment" to end the war in Iraq and bring U.S. troops home.
"Part of ending the war in Iraq responsibly is standing by those who served," Carney said.
Veterans are a key voting bloc in the closely fought presidential race.
A Gallup tracking poll in August shows Republican Mitt Romney leads Obama, 55 percent to 38 percent among veterans. Exit polls conducted in 2008 showed voters who had served in the military preferred Republican John McCain over Obama by 10 percentage points.
At their party's convention this week in Tampa, Fla., Romney and other Republicans made repeated references to veterans. Romney broke away from the convention Wednesday to speak to the American Legion in Indianapolis.
Mindful of his poll numbers, Obama has sharply contrasted his record on Iraq and Afghanistan with Romney's rhetoric.
Campaigning in Virginia on Wednesday, Obama cited Romney's comment that ending the war in Iraq was "tragic."
His Republican rival "doesn't have a plan to bring home the 33,000 troops who will be coming home from Afghanistan next month," Obama said. "He likes to talk tough, but he doesn't have a lot of details when it comes to these critical issues. "
By contrast, Obama said — repeating a familiar theme — "When I say I will end the war in Iraq, I will end it. When I say that we will go after (Osama) bin Laden, we'll go after him."
As long as he is commander in chief, Obama added, "we will serve our veterans as well as they've served us. I mean it."
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