Bush Offers Veterans Day Tribute

Times Staff Writer

President Bush paid tribute Tuesday to the military's "young men and women who died in distant lands," saying they gave their lives not only to secure freedom in Afghanistan and Iraq but also to ensure a safer America for future generations -- twin causes that he said are "worth fighting for."

Leading the nation in honoring all veterans, the president also warned that if democracy did not take hold in Afghanistan and Iraq, terrorists would almost certainly launch attacks on the United States.

"The failure of democracy in those two countries would convince terrorists that America backs down under attack, and more attacks on America would surely follow," Bush said. His national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, said the president viewed the struggle as "a matter of will."

On Tuesday morning, in a somber ceremony under slate-gray skies, the president laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. He then delivered his most expansive remarks to date on the growing death toll in Iraq -- 394 service members so far.

"The loss is terrible. It is borne especially by the families left behind. But in their hurt and in their loneliness, I want these families to know your loved ones served in a good and just cause," Bush said.

"They did not live to be called 'veterans.' But this nation will never forget their lives of service and all they did for us," he said.

A short time later, in a speech he delivered to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy center in Washington, the president reiterated his "unbreakable commitment" to bring freedom to Afghanistan and Iraq."

"Our men and women are fighting terrorist enemies thousands of miles away in the heart and center of their power, so that we do not face those enemies in the heart of America," he said.

Evoking the presidencies of Harry S. Truman and Ronald Reagan, Bush likened his determination to press the war on terrorism to Truman's staunch support of the Berlin Airlift in 1948, at the beginning of the Cold War, and Reagan's resolve as he oversaw the fall of the Soviet Union and the Cold War's end.

"Two years into the war on terror, the will and resolve of America are being tested, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Again, the world is watching. Again we will be steadfast; we will finish the mission we have begun, period," he said.

Bush also marked the day by signing two military-related pieces of legislation: one to provide tax relief and other benefits to members of the armed forces and their families, and another to create six national cemeteries, including one in Bakersfield.

The tax relief legislation will double the military death gratuity benefit, to $12,000, and make the full payment tax-exempt. It will also make dependent-care benefits tax-free.

The additional cemeteries are needed because about 1,800 veterans, mostly from World War II and the Korean War, die every day, according to the White House.

More than 25 million living Americans have served in the military, including 11 million from the Korea and Vietnam conflicts, 4 million from World War II and almost 200 from World War I.

Also on Tuesday, the White House released the transcripts of three brief interviews that Rice granted on Monday to television stations in Dallas, Houston and Seattle -- the latest administration effort to speak directly to the public about the war on terrorism.

In her remarks, Rice conceded that the United States "will continue to have difficulties for a while" in Iraq, but she added: "We have a very good strategy for dealing with this upsurge of violence."

She also warned of future casualties, saying, "There will be losses because we're on the offense."

But, she added, "If we're not on the offensive, terrorism will continue to haunt us well, well, well into the future and for generations to come." She also told the television stations that the president "feels acutely" every American death.

"Yes, it's very sad, and the president mourns each loss," Rice said. "But the sacrifices are necessary for the long-term security of this country."

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