By Lisa Lambert
EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) - President Barack Obama returned on Friday to the site where he announced the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq two years ago, highlighting his foreign policy record and pledging to take better care of veterans of America's wars.
Obama visited Fort Bliss, Texas, where on August 31, 2010, he said he would make good on one of the signature promises from his 2008 run for the presidency: withdrawing American forces from Iraq.
"We're winding down a decade of war, we're destroying terrorists' networks that attacked us, and we've restored American leadership," Obama told some 5,000 soldiers at Fort Bliss. "As president, I will insist that America serves you and your families as well as you've served us."
The president, in reaching out to the military community ahead of the November 6 election, touted his decision to end the war in Iraq as well as combat operations in Afghanistan. He has promised to support those returning from war with health services and resources to find jobs.
"Just as we give you the best equipment and technology on the battlefield, we need to give you the best support and care when you come home," Obama said.
Before heading to North Carolina next week to accept the Democratic nomination for a second term, Obama is also attempting to turn voters' attention back to foreign policy, considered by many to be his strong suit in comparison with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Speaking after a meeting with military families, Obama reiterated his goal of winding down the war in Afghanistan, where the United States has been fighting for more than a decade, by the end of 2014.
"Today every American can be proud that the United States is safer, the United States is stronger, and the United States is more respected in the world," he said.
Earlier in the day, the president signed an executive order directing federal agencies to expand suicide prevention efforts and take steps to meet the demands for mental health and substance abuse treatments for veterans.
Obama pledged to provide greater help for those suffering from the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries.
"If you're hurting, it's not a sign of weakness to seek help, it's a sign of strength. We are here to help you stay strong, Army strong. That's the commitment I'm making to you," Obama said.
A recent Army study estimated as many as 20 percent of the more than 2 million U.S. troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan could be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"We may be turning a page on a decade of war, but America's responsibilities to you have only just begun," the president told the audience.
The U.S. military left Iraq at the end of 2011 with a mixed legacy, and violence and sectarian strife continue there. Obama has made the U.S. departure a fixture of his campaign speeches, along with a reminder that under his presidency U.S. forces killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Republicans, seeking to undermine Obama's foreign policy record, have criticized him for cutting defense spending and avoiding U.S. involvement in the 17-month-old uprising against Syria's Bashar al-Assad.
This week Romney told a meeting of the American Legion that "veterans face unconscionable waits for mental health treatment" from the Department of Veteran Affairs.
Obama has worked to improve the VA, but life for many veterans remains tough. They are more likely to be jobless and homeless than the general population, and a veteran within the VA healthcare system tries to commit suicide about once every half-hour on average.
The executive order the president signed on Friday directs the VA to increase the veterans crisis line capacity by 50 percent by the end of this year. It also says any veteran identifying himself or herself as being in crisis should be connected with a mental health professional within 24 hours.
Americans tend to view Republicans as more capable than Democrats on the issues of defense and foreign relations. But in a Washington Post/ABC poll this week, 48 percent of respondents said they trusted Obama to do a better job handling international affairs, while 37 percent favored Romney.
(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; additional reporting by Margaret Chadbourn, Susan Cornwell, and Samson Reiny; Editing by Xavier Briand)