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 is an honor to be with you on this day of memorial and 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 more of you than had been expected, but you have never faltered, never wavered from the mission of your motto: "Always Ready, Always There."
Two weeks ago, I saw the Guard in action in Louisiana after it was hit by Hurricane Isaac. For many of the 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 they had evacuated 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 is a Guardsman who took out Saddam Hussein's tanks from his A-10, and who has fought to secure the villages of Afghanistan.
Our world is a dangerous place. And the attack on our homeland and citizens on September 11, 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 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 have 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 9/11. I was originally planning to be in Battery Park, in New York -- not far from the World Trade Center. 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 Winter Olympic Games. A colleague and I were working in our office in the Ronald Reagan building -- 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 the desk and watched in shock as 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 acts, these were terrorist acts, these were evil and cowardly and heinous acts.
Leaving the city, I drove toward Alexandria, Virginia. The highway I was on came within a few hundred yards of the Pentagon, which had been hit. Cars had stopped where they were, and people had gotten out, watching in horror. I could smell burning fuel and concrete and metal. 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, and 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 National 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 eleven years, Guardsmen and women have helped keep us safe from attack.
I wish I could say the world is less dangerous now -- that it is less chaotic. I wish I could predict with certainty the threats we will face in the years ahead. But on September 10, 2001, we had no idea that America would be at war in Afghanistan. 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 our military and for our national security. There is a time and a place for that, but this day is not it.
It is instead a day to express gratitude to the men and women who have 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.
This is also a day in which all of us -- in this convention hall, 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 with other nations, we must demonstrate confidence in our cause, clarity in our purpose, and resolve in our might.
For this to be an American Century, we must have a military that is second to none. 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 might 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 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 still remain in Afghanistan. Our goal 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.
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. It is true that our armed forces have been stretched to the brink -- and that is 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.
We must recognize that when our troops come home, they should not have to struggle for work. After all our veterans have done for us, they deserve the opportunity to find good jobs and the dignity of pursuing the American Dream.
We must also keep the faith with our veterans, no matter when or where they have served, through a strong VA system. When the backlog for disability claims reaches nearly one million when a federal building in Virginia becomes structurally unstable because so many claims have piled up on its highest floors then we can all agree that the system is in need of serious and urgent reform.
Our veterans deserve care and benefits that are second to none. Here, there is considerable work waiting to be done. The backlog of disability claims 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. The problems with the VA are serious and must be fixed. We are 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 who have worn the uniform and served.
When I was the 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. I said to them that if they wanted me to call their spouse or family when I returned, I would be happy to do so. Just hand me a note with their names and phone numbers. When I left for home, I found that I had 63 calls to make. I knew that making that many calls would take quite a few days.
I returned home on Memorial Day weekend. I decided to start making just a few of those calls first thing in the morning, before my kids and grandkids got up. After I'd made only two or three, a Guardsman's wife answered and said, "Oh, Governor Romney, I thought that might be you calling." Apparently, the first spouses I had called, had called other spouses, or had 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.
Remember, May 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 our politics back home had become deeply divided.
As I made those calls, I braced myself for questions about why the Guardsmen I had met couldn't come home -- right away. Yet in 63 calls, I did not hear a single complaint. Not one. On each call, I expressed gratitude on behalf of our nation and my state for the sacrifice of their family and of their loved one who was in harm's way. And then, from virtually everyone I spoke with, they would correct me to say that it was an honor to be able to sacrifice for America and to serve the greatest nation on earth. Such is the patriotism of the men and women and the families of our National Guard!
Many of those calls left me with tears in my eyes. I will 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 will never forget speaking with their loved ones. And I will always hold the greatest admiration for every one of them.
On the campaign trail, it has been my privilege to meet with troops and veterans from just about every state. They come from our farms, our great cities, our small towns and quiet neighborhoods. Many have known violence so that their neighbors could know peace. They have done more than protect America; their courage and service defines America.
On this eleventh anniversary of September 11th, 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 is inspiring to be in the company of men and women of courage, as I am today. It is an honor to be among those whose sense of duty and love of country lift our hearts and spirits.
We are blessed to live in a country where freedom is so highly cherished, so fiercely protected, and so admirably defended by the noble men and women of the National Guard.
Thank you. Thank you all for your service. May God bless America and continue to keep her safe.