Scott Sady/AP

Romney talks troops, Afghanistan at National Guard conference

The GOP nominee focuses on topics he bypassed in his convention speech.

RENO, Nev. – Mitt Romney paid tribute to the work of U.S. troops and veterans Tuesday in a speech that honored those affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and focused on topics he was criticized for bypassing in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention.

The GOP nominee declined to directly attack President Obama, telling more than 4,000 people at a National Guard Association Conference that would be inappropriate on the 11th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack on American soil. 

“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,” Romney said. “There is a time and a place for that, but this day is not it.” 

Romney drew reproaches from Democrats and Republicans alike after he failed to mention either the troops or the ongoing war in Afghanistan during his convention speech.  After a week of fielding questions about that decision, he specifically nodded Tuesday to the 70,000 men and women still on the ground in Afghanistan and weighed in on their fate.

“Our goal should be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014,” he said.  “We should evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders.” 

But, in an implied critique of Obama, Romney argued that the return of the troops should not be used as “an excuse to hollow out our military through devastating defense budget cuts.”  He has been aggressively attacking Obama this week for his role in a bipartisan debt deal that required automatic defense cuts if Congress and the White House could not agree on other ways to reduce the national debt. Romney running mate Paul Ryan was among those who voted for the deal.

In a statement emailed to reporters, Obama campaign spokesperson Lis Smith wrote that when it comes to the automatic defense cuts, Obama and Romney are in agreement. 

“The president agrees that we should avoid the automatic defense cuts in the Budget Control Act,” Smith wrote.  “That’s why he has called on congressional Republicans to help prevent them by asking millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share.”

While Romney avoided mentioning Obama by name in his speech, he implied that the country and the military need a new commander in chief. “We can all agree that our men and women in the field deserve a clear mission,” Romney said, “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.” 

Romney pointed to veterans’ health care as one area he would focus on as president, saying he’d work to eliminate a backlog of disability claims, try to shorten waits for mental health treatment, and treat the suicide rate among active-duty soldiers “like the emergency it is.”

“Veterans’ benefits are not a gift that is given, but a debt that is due,” he said to applause.

Romney also marked the 11th anniversary of  September 11th by remembering the victims who died in New YorkVirginia and Pennsylvania and cited the troops sent around the world as a result of the attacks. “We will not forget why they are fighting or who they are fighting for,” Romney said. “They are faithful to us and to our country; we must not break faith with them.”