- The Washington Times - Friday, August 31, 2012

EL PASO, Texas — Seeking to reclaim the spotlight a day after Mitt Romney accepted the Republican presidential nomination, President Obama delivered an election-year reminder Friday that he kept his 2008 campaign promise to end the war in Iraq.

Mr. Obama met with troops at Fort Bliss, Texas, two years to the day after he formally declared an end to the U.S. combat mission in Iraq. He also signed an order to beef up mental-health services for military service members.

“You left Iraq with honor, your mission complete, your heads held high,” Mr. Obama told about 5,000 soldiers assembled in a military hangar. “Today Iraq has a chance to forge its own destiny. There are no American troops fighting and dying in Iraq.”

Referring to his visit to the base two years ago when pledged to bring all troops home from Iraq, Mr. Obama said, “I meant what I said.”

Soldiers based at Fort Bliss took part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and were among the last combat troops to leave. The First Armored Division based at Fort Bliss lost 198 soldiers killed in Iraq.

The White House said the visit was official business, not campaign-related. But the president also used the opportunity to jab at congressional Republicans over the looming budget cuts that are to take effect in January to reduce the deficit, about half of which would hit the Defense Department.

“You’ve been hearing some folks out there trying to talk about the budget and trying to scare you,” the president told the troops. “Nobody wants these cuts. There’s no reason those cuts should happen. Folks in Congress ought to get together and agree on a responsible plan … that keeps our military strong. That’s what you and your families deserve.”

Noting that some of the troops would soon be redeployed to Afghanistan, the president sounded a cautionary tone.

“I gotta tell you the truth, this is still a very tough fight,” Mr. Obama said. “Just as in Iraq, we are going to end this war responsibly. In 2014, the transition will be complete. We’re not just ending these wars, we’re doing it in a way that keeps America safe.”

Mr. Obama held a round-table discussion with service members and military families on the base that was closed to the media, and then spoke to the troops assembled in their fatigues.

While Mr. Romney made no mention of Iraq or Afghanistan in his acceptance speech Thursday night, his campaign is working hard to gain veterans’ support. The latest Gallup tracking poll in August showed Mr. Romney leading Mr. Obama among veterans, 55 percent to 38 percent. The Republican nominee even left the GOP convention briefly to speak to an American Legion gathering in Indianapolis earlier this week.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president’s executive order “builds on steps this administration has already taken to treat the unseen wounds of war” — post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury — with increased access to mental health treatment and screening for symptoms. It is also aimed at suicide prevention.

Mr. Carney couldn’t provide a cost estimate, but said he believed the expanded services would be paid with existing funds.

The order directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to increase the number of its counselors. Mr. Obama also ordered the Pentagon and the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct a mental health study aimed at improving prevention and treatment of PTSD and brain injuries.

The president will go back to the campaign trail Saturday for appearances in Iowa, part of a four-state tour of battleground states on his way to the Democratic National Convention next week in Charlotte, N.C. On Monday, Mr. Obama will cut short his campaigning to visit Louisiana, to get a close-up view of damage from Hurricane Isaac. Mr. Romney visited New Orleans Friday.