Veterans Day: Iraq's Long Shadow

This Veterans Day is a very immediate matter, with U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere never far from the minds of those at today's formal ceremonies. Also front and center: political debate about the treatment of the veterans themselves.

President Bush and Laura Bush will be at the traditional wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, where Mr. Bush will speak of the sacrifices made by U.S. military men and women.

Later in the day, at a political event sponsored by a conservative think tank, Mr. Bush is expected to comment more directly on recent debate over U.S. strategy in Iraq and the question of how long U.S. troops are likely to be in the Gulf.

White House communications director Dan Bartlett, asked about the president's planned speech at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in D.C., said Mr. Bush will again argue the case for the U.S. to stay the course in Iraq.

"It's incredibly important that they complete the mission at hand," said Bartlett. "Those sacrifices will help make the world safer and a better place to live. He'll talk about his assessment of the current situation in Iraq, both the security situation and our strategy to prevail."

On Veterans Day just one year ago, President Bush was threatening to commit the "full force and might" of U.S. military against Saddam Hussein unless he quickly disarmed.

This year, the Bush administration finds itself empty-handed in the search for these weapons of mass destruction. And daily attacks against remaining troops have pushed the U.S. death toll to nearly 400, with more than half of those since the president declared an end to major combat operations on May 1.

Bartlett rejected criticism, mostly from Democrats, that the Bush administration lacks a solid strategy for postwar Iraq.

"Those who claim there is not a strategy are using empty words that are not backed up by facts," he said. "The president has enunciated a clear strategy for victory in Iraq."

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice on Monday acknowledged an upsurge in violence, especially in the so-called "Sunni Triangle" encompassing Baghdad, Fallujah and Tikrit.

But she said the administration's No. 1 strategy is to increase the number of Iraqis involved in their own security. She said there are now 118,000 trained Iraqi security forces.

Rice denied that major combat operations have resumed.

Secretary of State Colin Powell told students at City College in New York on Monday night that "for the sake of civilization, for our security, we must stay the course" in Iraq.

"There is no question we are being tested," Powell said, but "we will win - of that there is absolutely no doubt in my mind."

Also Tuesday, President Bush is signing the Fallen Patriots Tax Relief Act, which doubles the tax-free death gratuity payment given to the families of fallen soldiers from $6,000 to $12,000; and the National Cemetery Expansion Act to help establish new national cemeteries for deceased veterans in southeastern Pennsylvania and in and around Birmingham, Ala., Jacksonville and Sarasota, Fla., Bakersfield, Calif., and Greenville and Columbia, S.C.

There are an estimated 19 million veterans in the United States, and about 1,500 die each day. With an aging World War II generation, the Veterans Affairs Department estimates the number of veterans dying is expected to peak at 687,000 in 2006.

The signing of the cemetery bill does not exempt Mr. Bush from criticism by at least three of the Democratic presidential candidates - Wesley Clark, John Kerry and Joe Lieberman.

In comments timed to coincide with Veterans Day, each of the presidential hopefuls outlined their own proposals, while accusing the Bush administration of failing to do enough to help veterans and men and women on active duty.

Clark is proposing support for homeless veterans, speedier collection of pensions for disabled veterans, and a new memorial for troops who served in conflicts which don't already have their own national memorial.

Kerry is arguing for mortgage insurance for the homes of Reservists and National Guard soldiers hard hit by the loss of civilian salaries they don't earn while on active duty.

Lieberman also focuses on pay - what he calls "a decent wage" along with improved housing and health care for veterans - and promises not to cut military pay. And like Clark, the Connecticut Democrat also pledges to keep Defense Department schools open.

In a campaign release defending his record, Mr. Bush noted his increase for the Department of Veterans Affairs and said he increased the budget for the agency more in his first two years in office than in the previous six years.

He said he also took the unprecedented step of allowing veterans with a prescription from private physicians to have the VA fill them.