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Remarks at the 134th National Guard Association of the United States General Conference and Exhibition in Reno, Nevada

September 11, 2012

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much, please. Thank you. [cheers and applause] Major General Vavala, thank you for your generous introduction and thank you for your years of service as chairman of the board and for your decades of service to our nation.

Ladies and gentlemen of the National Guard Association, it's an honor to be with you on this day of memorial and of appreciation. We remember with heavy hearts the tragic loss of life, and we express thankfulness for the men and women who responded to that tragedy. We honor them, and we honor those who secure our safety even to this day.

We honor the men and women of the National Guard. For 375 years, whenever your countrymen have encountered threat and danger, you have willingly gone. Wherever the cause of freedom has called, you have answered. And as the threats to liberty have emanated from distant lands, you've served far from home and far from family.

The nation has asked much of you, much more than had been expected. But you never faltered, never wavered from your mission, from that motto: "Always ready, always there."

Several weeks ago I saw the guard in action in Louisiana after it was hit by Hurricane Isaac. For many people of the Gulf who had just finished repairing their homes and getting life back to normal after Katrina, the damage from Isaac felt like too much to bear. As I toured the flooded streets, I was not surprised to find the guard keeping order, distributing water and supplies, and caring for many of those who had been evacuated and — and rescued.

Time and again, it has been the guardsman's hand that has lifted a child from rising waters, that has rescued a family from a hurricane's fury and that has fed and clothed a fellow American whose home and possessions have been lost to nature's devastation. It's a guardsman who took out Saddam Hussein's tanks from his A-10 and who fought the secure the villages of Afghanistan. Thank you for that service. [applause]

As you know too well, our world is a dangerous place, and the attack on our homeland and citizens on September 11th, 2001, reminds us that the mission of the guard is ever more critical and ever more deserving of our support and honor.

More than a decade has now passed since that day of tragedy, but the visions and the events are seared in the memory of every American. We remember those who died. We marvel at the courage of those who stormed the cockpit when they became aware of the malevolent purpose of the hijackers. We hold up in prayer the families and friends who've lived in a shadow cast by grief. We draw strength from the selflessness of the first responders, and we renew our resolve to protect America from the designs of evil men.

Like you, I remember where I was on September 11th. I was originally planning to be in Battery Park in New York City, not far from the World Trade Center itself. But as it turned out, I was in Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Congress about preparations for the security of the upcoming Olympic Winter Games. A colleague and I were working in the office we had in the Ronald Reagan building. It was just a few blocks from the White House.

Someone rushed into our office and said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I turned on the small TV on our desk there and — and watched in shock as the flames and smoke erupted from the north tower. I called my wife, Ann. She too watched the tragedy from her TV and wondered how a plane could fly into a building in clear daylight. And then we saw the second plane crash into the second tower. These then were purposeful attacks. These were terrorist attacks. These were evil and cowardly and heinous attacks.

Leaving the city, I — I drove towards Alexandria. The highway I was on came within a few hundred yards of the Pentagon, which had been hit by then. Cars were stopped where they were, and people had gotten out, watching in horror.

I could smell burning fuel and concrete and steel. It was the smell of war, something I never imagined I would smell in America. In our own ways, we each were overwhelmed by the enormity of the loss of life. We struggled to comprehend the magnitude of what this meant for the families of those who had been killed, and for our own families, for our nation, for the world. For some, there was also anger.

But grief and anger soon turned to action. And among those taking the lead were members of the National Guard. Members of the guard secured our airports and borders, and members of the guard began to mobilize, to deploy half a world away, where you would become all too familiar with the mountains of the Hindu Kush and the streets of Fallujah. Throughout the last 11 years, guardsmen and women have helped keep us safe from attack, and the nation owes you a great debt of gratitude.

I wish I could say the world is less dangerous now, that it's less chaotic. I wish I could predict with certainty the threats we'll face in the years ahead. But on September 10th, 2001, we had no idea that America would be at war in Afghanistan someday. In December of 2010, we had no idea that a Tunisian street vendor would inspire a revolution that would topple three dictators. We live in a time of turbulence and disruption. What I can say with certainty is that we need the National Guard's vigilance and strength now as much as ever before.

With less than two months to go before Election Day, I would normally speak to a gathering like this about the differences between my and my opponent's plans for military and for our national security.

There is a time and place for that, but this day is not that. It is instead a day to express gratitude to the men and women who fought, and who are still fighting, to protect us and our country, including those who traced the trail of terror to that walled compound in Abbottabad, and the SEALs who delivered justice to Osama bin Laden. [applause]

This is also a day in which all of us in this convention hall and in this campaign and in this country can hopefully agree on important things. This century must be an American century. It began with terror, war and economic calamity. It is now our duty to steer it onto the path of freedom, peace and prosperity.

America must lead the free world, and the free world must lead the entire world. In our dealings — [applause] — in the dealings we have with other nations, we must demonstrate confidence in our cause, clarity in our purpose and resolve in the application of our military might. For this to be an American century, we must have a military that is second to none, that is so strong, no one would ever think of testing it. [applause]

American military power is vital to the preservation of our own security and for the preservation of peace around the world. Time and again America's military has been the best ally of liberty and peace. American forces rescued Europe twice. American forces stood up to brutal dictators and freed millions living under tyranny. America's military leads the fight against terrorism around the world, and it secures the global commons to keep them safe for the trade and commerce that are vital to lifting people from poverty.

While the war in Iraq is over, nearly 70,000 American troops will still remain in Afghanistan at the end of the month. Our goals should be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014. We should evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders. 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. [applause]

Of course, the return of our troops cannot and must not be used as an excuse to hollow out our military through devastating defense budget cuts. [applause] It is true that our armed forces have been stretched to the brink, and that's all the more reason to repair and rebuild. 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 to our men and women in uniform. [applause]

We've got to recognize that when our troops come home, they should not have to struggle to find work.

After all our veterans have done for us, they deserve the opportunity to find good jobs and the dignity of pursuing of the American dream. [cheers and applause]

We've also got to keep the faith with our veterans, no matter when or where they've served, through a strong VA system. When the backlog for disability claims reaches nearly a million, when a federal building in Virginia becomes structurally unstable because so many claims have piled up on its highest floor, then we can all agree that the system is in need of serious and urgent reform — and it is. [applause]

Our veterans deserve care and benefits that are second to none. Here there's considerable work waiting to be done. The backlog of disability claims need to be — 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. Veterans' benefits are not a gift that is given, but a debt that is due. [applause]

The problems with the VA are serious and they've got to be fixed. We're in danger of another generation of veterans losing their faith in the VA system, so we must ensure that the VA keeps faith with all our veterans. We must keep our promises and regain the trust of all those who've worn the uniform and served our country.

When I was governor of Massachusetts, I saw firsthand the guard's bravery and valor. In 2006 I visited Iraq and Afghanistan along with two other governors. We met with the members of the National Guard from our respective states and were flown by helicopter from base to base. I said to them that if they wanted me to call their spouse or their family when I got home, I'd be happy to do that; just hand me a note with your name and their names and phone numbers.

And so when I left for home, I found that I had 63 notes in my pocket, 63 calls to make. I — I knew that making that many calls would take quite a few days or weeks.

I returned home on Memorial Day weekend, and I decided to start making just a couple of calls first thing in the morning, before my kids and grandkids got up. After I'd made only two or three calls, a guardsman's wife answered the phone, and she said this: Oh, hello, Governor. I thought that might be you calling. [laughter]

Now apparently, the first spouses I called had called other spouses or they'd emailed their loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, who then emailed their spouses back home to tell them to expect my call. So I made 63 calls on Memorial Day. [laughter and applause]

Now you'll remember that May of 2006 was a difficult time in the Iraq War. Many of you know that from experience. We were suffering terrible casualties, and terrorism was straining our efforts to stand up the Iraqi government.

The surge had not yet begun, and the politics back home had become very deeply divided.

And so as I made those calls, I braced myself for questions about why the guardsmen I had met couldn't come home right away. Why were they still there? And yet in 63 calls, I did not hear a single complaint, not one. On each call, I would end by expressing my gratitude on behalf of our nation and my state for the sacrifice of their loved one and of their family, these individuals in harm's way, so far away.

And then from virtually everyone I spoke with, they would correct me to say instead that it was an honor to be able to sacrifice for America and to serve the greatest nation on earth. [applause] Such is the patriotism of the men and women and families of our National Guard.

Many of those calls left me with tears in my eyes. I'll never forget meeting the brave men and women who had volunteered for the National Guard in Massachusetts, who found themselves on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan. I'll never forget speaking with their loved ones. And I'll always hold the greatest admiration for every one of them.

On the campaign trail, it's been my privilege to meet with troops and veterans from just about every corner of America. They come from our farms, our great cities, our small towns and quiet neighborhoods. Many have known violence so their neighbors could know peace.

They have done more than protect America; their courage and service defines America. [applause]

On this 11th anniversary of September 11th of 2001, we remember the victims who perished in the attacks. We also remember the men and women serving in dangerous places around the world. We will not forget why they are fighting or who they are fighting for. They are faithful to us and to our country. We must not break faith with them.

I want to personally thank you for keeping us safe. It's inspiring to be in the company of men and women of the National Guard, men and women of courage that I stand before today. It's an honor to be among those who — whose sense of duty and love of country lift our hearts and our spirits.

We're blessed to live in a country where freedom is so highly cherished, where it is so fiercely protected and where it's so admirably defended by the noble men and women of the National Guard. I respect you. I admire you. I respect and admire the men and women who serve with you. You are a great force for good in America and in the world. Our debt of gratitude can never be repaid expect by saying, God bless you, God bless the United States of America, and God bless the great people of the National Guard. Thank you so very much. [applause]

Mitt Romney, Remarks at the 134th National Guard Association of the United States General Conference and Exhibition in Reno, Nevada Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/302959

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