Obama vows to support veterans, steers back to foreign policy

Lisa Lambert

* White House increases health services for veterans

* Executive order focuses on suicide prevention

* Mitt Romney says president's steps fall short

EL PASO, Texas, Aug 31 (Reuters) - U.S. 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 Aug. 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 Nov. 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


"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.