FORT BLISS, Texas (AP) — In an election-year reminder that he ended the war in Iraq, President Barack Obama vowed Friday to help soldiers, veterans and their families overcome economic and health care struggles as they return to the nation they have served.
Surrounded by a sea of men and women in fatigues, Obama saluted their service, but cautioned that a "tough fight" remains in Afghanistan even as the U.S. works to transfer security control to Afghan forces. He said the troops' return home now presents different challenges.
"After fighting for America you shouldn't have to fight for a job in America," Obama said. "To you and all you serve, we need to be there for you just like you were there for us."
Obama's visit Friday to the vast Fort Bliss Army post in El Paso came on the second anniversary of the end of combat operations in Iraq. While officially not a presidential campaign trip, the visit also served clear political aims by highlighting the end of one unpopular war and the wind-down of another and drawing attention to Obama's role as commander in chief.
Obama also visited Fort Bliss on Aug. 31, 2010, the day he announced the end of the U.S. combat role in Iraq.
"You left Iraq with honor, your heads held high," Obama said. "And today Iraq has a chance to forge its own destiny, and there are no American troops fighting and dying in Iraq."
Fort Bliss soldiers participated in the Iraqi invasion in 2003 and were among the last to serve in combat roles there. The post endured significant losses during the Iraq war and its troops are now being deployed in Afghanistan.
Before his remarks, Obama held a private roundtable meeting with service members and military families, including "Gold Star" families who lost relatives overseas.
His message to them, Obama said: "Your loved ones live on in the soul of our nation."
Obama acknowledged that for those who return, "coming home can be its own struggle." He cited the effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome and traumatic brain injury.
He announced that he had, earlier Friday, signed an executive order directing federal agencies to expand their efforts at addressing the mental health needs of veterans, service members and their families and to increase measures aimed at preventing suicide.
"I know that you join me in saying to everyone who's ever worn the uniform, if you're hurting it's not a sign of weakness to seek help, it's a sign of strength," he said. "We are here to help you stay strong - Army strong."
Among the steps spelled out in the order is an increase in the number of Department of Veterans Affairs' counselors. It also orders the Pentagon and the Department of Health and Human Services to undertake a mental health study aimed at improving prevention, diagnoses and treatment of post-traumatic stress syndrome and traumatic brain injury.
Obama also renewed a call on Congress to pass measures in Obama's economic proposals specifically aimed at veterans, including one that provides tax credits to businesses that hire vets.
Veterans are a key voting bloc in the closely fought presidential race.
A Gallup tracking poll in August shows Republican Mitt Romney leads Obama, 55 percent to 38 percent among veterans. Exit polls conducted in 2008 showed voters who had served in the military preferred Republican John McCain over Obama by 10 percentage points.
At their party's convention this week in Tampa, Fla., Romney and other Republicans made repeated references to veterans. Romney broke away from the convention Wednesday to speak to the American Legion in Indianapolis.
Romney has attempted to blame Obama for threatened spending cuts in defense that will kick in if Congress doesn't come up with a deficit reduction plan by year's end. The sharp reductions in Pentagon spending and in other domestic programs were part of a deal Obama struck with Republican leaders last year and was designed to force Congress to find other means of reducing the deficit.
Obama on Friday reiterated his demands for Congress to act.
"Here's the thing, there's no reason those cuts should happen because folks in Congress ought to come together and agree on a responsible plan that reduces the deficit and keeps our military strong." He said.
Romney's campaign, however, said Obama's economic policies had made it more difficult for veterans and said more veterans would face unemployment if the defense cuts are enacted.
"As president, Mitt Romney will never play politics with our military's strength and will enact pro-growth policies to get veterans - and all Americans - back to work," said Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams.
Follow Matthew Daly on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC