Updated at 7:45 p.m. May 28, 2012
Mitt Romney said a strong America “is the best deterrent to war there ever has been invented” and saluted the sacrifice of veterans at a Memorial Day event at Balboa Park, where he quietly laid a wreath outside public view.
“The greatness in a people, I believe, is measured by the extent to which they will give themselves to something bigger than themself, to sacrifice for a cause of significance,” Romney told an audience of about 5,000, including 500 standing for nearly 2 hours.
“And when that sacrifice of self and for purpose and for principle greater than self surpasses our everyday understanding by the widest margin, we call that greatness heroic. We’re a nation that has been formed and preserved by heroes.”
Speaking for 13 minutes after Sen. John McCain, Romney told of another Memorial Day when he was governor of Massachusetts early in the Iraq War.
He said he had traveled to the Mideast and collected phone numbers from 63 service members, promising to call their spouses and families when he got back. He started with the intention of calling three or four, but the Internet alerted the troops and their families that he was calling.
So after hearing one family member say she had been expecting his call, Romney resolved to phone all 63, he told an audience, which had passed through Secret Service security checks in the parking lot of the Veterans Museum and Memorial Center next to the old naval hospital.
McCain was interrupted by a man in the audience four minutes into his own remarks, and the person was hustled away by Secret Service.
“Jerk,” McCain said to scattered cheers of the mostly older audience, who chanted USA, USA to drown out the heckler.
The heckler, wearing a black T-shirt and jacket, had mentioned the USS Liberty, the American spy ship attacked by Israel in 1967 and whose crew suffered 34 deaths.
Romney—who had several college deferments amid his Mormon missionary years and didn't serve in the military—sat next to Nick Popaditch, the retired Marine running against Rep. Susan Davis for Congress.
La Mesa Councilwoman Ruth Sterling, who had arrived at the center planning to take part in the annual reading of the names of Vietnam war dead, instead learned she would be sitting on the stage—almost behind Popaditch.
She thus was feet from the Republican presdiential nominee of 2008 and the 2012 presumptive nominee.
She said her place was secured as a thank you from Donald Barnard of the San Diego Veterans Memorial Center, even though the printed program—and the public address announcer—said she would be performing America the Beautiful with the Kister Family Singers.
That wasn’t really her plan.
“I’m happy that I was up there [on stage],” Sterling said Monday night. “I was happy with what they gave me. ... They were just being nice to me” by citing her in the program.
As military service anthems and patriotic music played on loudspeakers and plastic water bottles were distributed, veterans were seated nearest the stage on white folding chairs. A 10-member Navy band in dress whites followed, playing God Bless America and other tunes.
Members of Republican clubs, including La Jolla and Rancho Bernardo women, took seats facing a stage with Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force flags fluttering behind.
GOP Reps. Darrell Issa and Duncan Hunter mixed with the crowd in the event being covered by the traveling press corps and major networks.
Other speakers included Kim Dang Trang of the Vietnamese Community Association; retired Marine David Dickey, the San Diego Veteran of the Year; and Carl DeMaio, the openly gay councilman running for mayor of San Diego.
“I am honored to be celebrating Memorial Day this year with John McCain,” Romney said in a statement issued in connection with the release of a 45-second Memorial Day-related video titled Thank You.
“I don't have to tell John’s story; the world already knows it. But it is what today’s holiday is all about—sacrifice, valor, honor, courage and love of country.
“A lot of young Americans are risking their lives in distant battlefields today. Memorial Day is a day to give thanks to them and to remember all of America’s soldiers who have laid down their lives to defend our country.
“As we enjoy our barbecues with friends and families and loved ones, let’s keep them in our thoughts and in our prayers,” said the part-time La Jolla resident.
The San Diego appearance comes one day after Romney called for the United States to “work with partners to organize and arm Syrian opposition groups so they can defend themselves.”
Romney’s comments came in response to Friday's massacre of at least 108 people—including 49 children and 34 women—in the area of Houla, Syria, a collection of Sunni villages 15 miles northwest of the central city of Homs, according to the United Nations.
“After nearly a year and a half of slaughter, it is far past time for the United States to begin to lead and put an end to the Assad regime,” Romney said, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“President (Barack) Obama can no longer ignore calls from congressional leaders in both parties to take more assertive steps.
“The bloodshed in Houla makes clear that our goal must be a new Syrian government, one that contributes to peace and stability in the Middle East and that truly represents the brave Syrian people.”
There was no immediate response to an email sent to the Obama campaign Sunday or the White House today seeking a response.
In his remarks under a bright sky in mid-70s temperatures, Romney spoke of threats from around the world.
“I wish I could tell you that the world is a safe place today,” Romney said as a dozen or more jetliners descended for landing at Lindbergh Field. “It’s not.”
Iran was rushing to become a nuclear nation, Romney said.
“As a national sponsor of terror around the world, the thought of fissile material in the hands of Hezbollah or Hamas or other terrorists is simply unthinkable,” he said.
Pakistan was home to some 100 nuclear weapons, China was on the road to becoming a military superpower and Russia was rebuilding its military with a leader who believes the Soviet Union was a great, as opposed to evil, empire.
Mexico was under siege from the cartels and in the Middle East, the Arab Spring had become an Arab winter, Romney said.
Romney said there were two courses the country could take, one was to follow in the pathway of Europe, to shrink our military to pay for our social needs—a prospect that brought boos from the crowd.
“Were we to follow that kind of a course, there’d be no one that could stand to protect us,” he said.
The alternative was to “commit to preserve America as the strongest military in the world, second to none, with no comparable power anywhere in the world,” Romney said.
“We choose that course in America not so that we just win wars, but so we can prevent wars because a strong America is the best deterrent to war there ever has been invented,” Romney said to cheers.
He also spoke of heroism, calling McCain a hero.
Romney believed the greatness of a people was measured by the extent to which they would give themselves to something bigger than themselves, to
sacrifice for a cause of significance.
“When that sacrifice of self and for purpose and for principle greater than self surpasses our everyday understanding by the widest margin, we call that greatness heroic,” Romney told the crowd. “We’re a nation that has been formed and preserved by heroes.”
City News Service contributed to this report.