By Howard Wilkinson
Enquirer staff writer
Saying his administration has "gotten the job done'' for America's military veterans, President Bush came to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention here Monday to make his case on the issues they care about most - national security and health care.
"Serving our veterans is one of the highest priorities of this administration,'' Bush said in the Sabin Cincinnati Conven-tion Center, packed with nearly 10,000 veterans and their spouses.
"We have a solid record of accomplishment.''
After his half-hour speech, the president got a 20-minute tour of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which will hold its grand opening Monday.
But it was the VFW delegates - and the nearly 26 million Americans who once wore military uniforms they represent - who drew the president to Cincinnati Monday in the heat of the presidential campaign.
The VFW crowd - which will hear from Bush's Democratic opponent John Kerry on Wednesday - gave a tepid response to Bush's announcement that he is restructuring the military to bring about 70,000 troops home from Europe and Asia to American military bases. But they cheered and rose to their feet often when the president recited a litany of what his administration has done to aid veterans.
And, when he attacked his opponent for not supporting an $87 billion bill to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, a little over half the audience stood and applauded, while the rest stayed planted firmly in their seats.
Without mentioning Kerry's name, the president ridiculed the Democrat's statement that the $87 billion funding bill was a "complicated'' matter.
"There is nothing complicated about supporting our troops in combat," Bush said, sparking a roar of approval and bringing most of the crowd to its feet.
The troop redeployment that Bush announced in Cincinnati on Monday will mean that two divisions which have spent time in Iraq and are now based in Germany - the 1st Armored Division and the 1st Infantry Division - will be coming home to bases in the United States, but not until at least 2006.
"Over the coming decade, we'll deploy a more agile and more flexible force, which means that more of our troops will be stationed and deployed from here at home,'' Bush told the conventioneers.
Bush's speech came in the middle of a presidential election most believe is too close to call.
But it was clear that the Bush-Cheney campaign plans a full-out assault in its bid for veterans' votes, with the presence of the president at the first official convention meeting Monday morning, a speech by Secretary of State Colin Powell at a VFW banquet Monday night and an appearance this morning by Veteran Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi.
The fact that the convention was taking place in Ohio, considered a crucial state in the presidential election, didn't hurt. Monday was Bush's third visit to Cincinnati and eighth to Ohio this year.
The VFW, its leaders say, is much like the nation at large in that it is nearly split down the middle between supporters of Bush and supporters of Kerry.
"We've got Republicans, we've got Democrats,'' said John Furgess, the Nashville, Tenn., Vietnam veteran who will take over this week as the VFW's national commander-in-chief. "All we ask of our members is that they vote.''
Both the Bush and Kerry campaigns wasted no time accepting the VFW's invitation to speak at its 105th national convention, which has brought nearly 15,000 veterans and their spouses to Cincinnati.
Bush, in a speech aimed well beyond the convention crowd to the larger audience of nearly 26 million U.S. military veterans, said his administration is reforming a Department of Veterans Affairs health care system that many veterans believe is overcrowded, understaffed and unable to deal with a growing caseload.
VFW CONVENTION SCHEDULE
In the morning business session, delegates will hear from Anthony Principi, secretary of veterans affairs.
Also in the morning, convention officials will present entertainer Tony Orlando with a "Gold Medal of Merit" for his work entertaining troops.
A "patriotic rally" is planned for 4:30 p.m. in Exhibit Hall B.
John Kerry, the Democratic candidate for president, is expected to address the delegates in their morning session.
Members will attend workshops on homeless veterans, the VFW's military family support centers, the VFW National Home for Children and legislative services.
The convention's morning session will feature awards ceremonies honoring businesses that have supported the VFW and active-duty military, the year's outstanding VA health-care employee and several people receiving VFW distinguished-service medals.
The morning session - the last of the convention - will feature the election of a new national commander and other officers for 2004-05. A reception for the new national commander - expected to be John Furgess of Nashville, Tenn. - will follow in the afternoon.
"We are bringing care to veterans more quickly,'' said Bush, as dozens of veterans and their wives streamed up and down the long aisles of the exhibit hall to get up front and take photos of the commander-in-chief.
Under his leadership, Bush said, the VA has:
Seen its budget grow by 40 percent since 2001.
Enrolled another 2.5 million veterans for VA health care.
Cut the processing time for VA health care claims by 70 days.
Many veterans in the audience were impressed by Bush's recitation of his administration's record; others weren't so sure.
"He supports the military and the VA,'' said 73-year-old John Dillinger Sr., a Korean War veteran from Martinsburg, W.Va. "We need some improvements in the VA, but I'm confident the president can make them happen.''
After the speech, in the back of the hall, Louis Tanksley and Willie Lindsey, two friends and fellow Korean War veterans from Columbus, Miss., found themselves on opposite sides.
"I'm rooting for Bush all the way; we need to keep him in there if this country has any chance of being safe," Tanksley said. "I'm trying to convince Willie here, but I'm not getting very far."
Lindsey said he is not convinced that Bush's record on veterans issues "is all that good,'' but he said he won't commit to a candidate just yet.
"I may just go in that booth, close my eyes, and vote," Lindsey said. "I don't have much use for either of them."
Across from the convention center, on Elm Street, "Veterans for Kerry'' held a peaceful protest. Many of them waved placards that contained copies of their military discharge papers and the words, "Mr. Bush, here's my DD-214, where's yours?''
It was a reference to allegations that Bush did not fulfill his obligation to the Air National Guard in the early 1970s.
"I know where I was in those days,'' said Tim Steinerman of Indian Lake, Ohio. "I'd like to know where he was.''
But inside the convention center, many veterans responded enthusiastically when Bush delivered a vigorous defense of his war on terrorism and his decision to invade Iraq.
"The ruler of Iraq was a sworn enemy of America,'' Bush said. "He had harbored and had used weapons of mass destruction, he was a source of instability in one of the most volatile regions of the world, He was a threat.''
What the U.S. learned from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Bush said, was that "we must deal with threats before they are fully realized.''
Bush also noted the presence in the audience of Carolyn and Keith Maupin, parents of Spc. Matt Maupin, the 21-year-old Army reservist from Union Township, Clermont County, who was kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents April 9 and is now listed as a captive.
"I have vowed to them that I will do everything we can to find their loved one,'' Bush said. "May God bless you, Keith and Carolyn."
After his 33-minute speech and a 10-minute walk along a rope line where he shook hands with veterans and pecked several ladies' cheeks, Bush's motorcade sped off for a quick tour of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, along the riverfront, before going on to a campaign event in Traverse City, Mich.
When Air Force One touched down at the DHL terminal at Greater Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport at 10:25 a.m. Monday, the Republicans' Kentucky 6th District Congressional candidate Geoff Davis entered the rear of the plane and emerged with Bush from the front entrance minutes later.
Also at the airport, the president met with 10-year-old Alexandra Amend of Mount Airy, who played the violin at Great American Ball Park on Sunday at the invitation of the Maupin family. Bush wanted to thank her for answering his call to community service after the terrorist attacks.
Enquirer reporters Gregory Korte and Matt Leingang contributed. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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