HAVELOCK, NORTH CAROLINA — HAVELOCK, N.C. -- Marines in camouflage fatigues stood at stiff salute, then joined their spouses and children in a thunderous cheer. It bounced off the walls of the cavernous Cherry Point Air Marine Corps Air Station hangar here and made a crowd of several thousand sound like at least twice that size.
They waved small American flags and large placards saying "Welcome, Mr. President" or bearing the names of kin, colleagues and friends overseas.
President Bush, for his first trip outside Washington and Camp David since launching a multinational war against Iraq, chose to visit three of the home bases of the men and women he ordered into battle.
Although he had made the decision that has already sent 11 Marines to their deaths and put countless more in daily peril, the military community here that had risen well before dawn to greet him in the cold yesterday morning let Mr. Bush know they support him all the way.
"You know, I heard on the radio the president is going to North Carolina to lift the morale of the people," Mr. Bush told the crowd. "Let me assure you, it's the other way around after seeing this group."
At each of the three stops, he gave 10-minute pep talks to large outdoor crowds composed mainly of the families of soldiers, airmen and Marines now serving in the Persian Gulf.
After each talk, he plunged into the audience, shaking hands, hugging wives, kissing babies and posing for pictures. Sometimes he attempted to take the pictures himself, holding an autofocus camera in his extended hand and pointing it at himself and its owner.
During a midday visit to the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, N.C., the crowd that gathered to meet Mr. Bush at the base picnic grounds was composed almost entirely of women, many of whom were holding photographs of servicemen they wanted the president to autograph.
One of the women, Denise Cole, was sobbing as she asked Mr. Bush to sign the picture of her husband, who had volunteered to serve in Saudi Arabia last August. The president hugged her and kissed the top of her head.
"Unfortunately, there are no medals of valor for military families," he lamented at Cherry Point. "If there were, there would be as much decoration on your chests as there is pride within them.
"You're doing more than just keeping the home fires burning," he added. "Your dedication and bravery is lighting the heart . . . of rTC every American."
Linda Hernandez, whose soldier husband was among the first to be sent to Saudi Arabia, tearfully described Mr. Bush's visit to Fort Stewart near Savannah, Ga., yesterday afternoon as "wonderful, exactly what we needed."
Outside the grounds at Johnson Air Force Base, a number of the spouses of deployed troops were chagrined that they had been denied entry to the event. There were places for only a few hundred at the picnic, and it was first-come, first-served. Those who made it got there before 7:30 a.m.
The president was unaware of this, but he said: "I want to tell you how very pleased I am to be able to spend some time meeting and talking to at least some of you -- especially the kids -- because I know in my heart how tough these days can be. There's a lot of waiting, a lot of uncertainty."
A few minutes later, Mr. Bush went off to meet privately with relatives of U.S. soldiers being held prisoner by Iraq. Reporters were not allowed into this session because the White House said it did not want missing soldiers identified, in case they are not in Iraqi custody.
However, the president said he hoped that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein does know about the lengthy standing ovation that Congress gave him the other night when he praised the Desert Storm troops in his State of the Union address.
"It was a moving thing," he recalled. "If only you could have felt it as I did standing up there in front of the Congress -- felt the thunder of the applause and sensed the emotion that filled that chamber. . . . And it was for you and our troops."
"I hope that Saddam Hussein, in his bunker there in Baghdad, saw every single minute of it. If he did, maybe he now understands that we are a nation united in support of our troops."