Snapping a sharp salute before cheering soldiers, President Bush put his credentials as wartime commander in chief on display Tuesday against suggestions he ducked his military duty as a child of privilege during the Vietnam War.
Cheers of "USA, USA" and enthusiastic applause greeted Bush as he took an outdoor stage at this military base that has trained and deployed more than 10,000 troops to Iraq and Afghanistan since America was struck by terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
"My resolve is the same as it was on the day when I walked in the rubble of the twin towers," Bush said. "I will not relent until this threat to America is removed. And neither will you."
Bush's appearance provided a TV-ready opportunity to emphasize his national security responsibilities and leadership of the war against terror, a role the White House wants to emphasize with voters as he heads into a re-election battle.
While officials said the visit had been planned for several weeks, it put Bush in a friendly military setting after a bruising week of allegations that put him on the defensive.
Democrats have questioned Bush's stint in the Texas Air National Guard — how he managed to get in and whether he fulfilled his obligations — at the height of the Vietnam War. The Democrats also have contrasted Bush's stay-at-home duty with the combat-decorated record of Sen. John Kerry, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Under pressure, the White House released Bush's military records last Friday but there was nothing new to document that Bush showed up for service in Alabama when Democrats have suggested he was AWOL, or missing.
Bush did not mention the subject Tuesday as he was surrounded by soldiers.
It also was his first appearance on a military base since former chief weapons inspector David Kay concluded that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, as Bush had alleged in leading the nation to war.
Bush said his administration had looked at the intelligence about Iraq "and we saw danger." He said members of Congress looked at the same intelligence and saw danger. So did the United Nations Security Council, he said. "We reached a reasonable conclusion that Saddam Hussein was a danger."
Bush had lunch with hundreds of members of a National Guard unit, the 39th Enhanced Separate Brigade combat team, which ships out to Iraq in two or three weeks. Its members are from 10 states, mostly Arkansas. Sitting in a large tent, they dined on MRE packs, meals-ready-to-eat, filled with canned beef in barbecue sauce, potato chips and cookies.
In interviews, soldiers brushed off the flap about Bush's record.
Staff Sgt. Jim Lee, an Arkansas National Guardsman, said, "I think he did his duty. We're certainly supportive of the president. We're all Guardsmen, so we know what happens when you transfer from one state to another. The records get convoluted."
Pfc. Allen Harmon, also from Arkansas, said, "In a sense you've got to look at people's past. But right now, he's doing a good job."
First Lt. Jason Cannon, a soldier of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment who was wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq, said, "I think it was a really long time ago. The press gets focused on things that aren't that important. I don't think he was AWOL. I've been in the Guard. He switched states. It looks like he was looking for a place to drill."
Pfc Willie Wade, a guardsmen majoring in education at Grambling State University, said, "I wondered (about Bush's Guard flap) when I first saw it. I take it he fulfilled his duty. They showed the papers."
Bush met with the families of some soldiers who were killed in Iraq. Twelve soldiers assigned to Fort Polk have died in Iraq, including two killed by a roadside bomb last week, according to Paula Schlag, a base spokeswoman.
"America depends on our military to meet dangers abroad and keep our country safe," Bush said. "The American people appreciate your sacrifice. Our government owes you more than gratitude; we must always make sure America's soldiers are well equipped and well trained to fight this war on terror."