Mitt Romney said Tuesday the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks was a time to remember those who were lost — and "renew our resolve to protect America from the designs of evil men."
The Republican presidential hopeful was addressing a meeting of the National Guard Association in Reno, Nev.
"We remember those who died," he continued. "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."
Romney spoke of his own experience on that day — hearing the news while working just blocks from the White House, and then driving into Virginia past a still-smoldering Pentagon.
"Cars had stopped where they were, and people had gotten out, watching in horror," Romney said. "I could smell burning fuel and concrete and metal. It was the smell of war, something I never imagined I would smell in America."
Romney offered specific praise for the National Guard, noting their work both in the aftermath of the tragedy and in more recent ones, including the aftermath of hurricane destruction on the Gulf Coast.
"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," Romney said. "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."
Romney mostly shied away from an overtly political discussion, saying it was not the time to draw contrast with President Obama.
"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."
Instead, the candidate argued, Americans should spend the day paying tribute to the troops.
"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," Romney said to one of the loudest cheers of the event.
But although Romney pledged to eschew politics, and praised an accomplishment considered the cornerstone of his opponent's foreign policy credentials, he did argue against the potential budget cuts to the Pentagon.
"The return of our troops cannot and must not be used as an excuse to hollow out our military through devastating defense budget cuts," Romney said. "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."
He also pledged to defend veterans benefits and address the problems with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"Veterans’ benefits are not a gift that is given, but a debt that is due," Romney said.
Obama on Tuesday attended a ceremony at the Pentagon memorial, and observed a moment of silence with White House staff during a ceremony on the South Lawn. Vice President Biden met with firefighters and delivered remarks at the Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville, Pa.