Barbara Bush's visit yesterday to the families of troops at Fort Meade turned into a flag-waving pep rally to celebrate the end of war, starting with cheerleaders and ending with the first lady declaring her pride in the way American soldiers had fought.
"It's not that we won," Mrs. Bush said. "It's pride in the way we won. We didn't shoot civilians. Our soldiers, when they kept prisoners, fed them and treated them like human beings."
Mrs. Bush came to the Gaffney Sports Arena to talk to 30 family members with relatives serving in the Persian Gulf. But instead of having to console them about the dangers of war, she found them ecstatic.
"They all feel elated," Mrs. Bush said. "I said, 'Come on, I'm here to hear your troubles.' They said, 'Troubles, what are they?' "
In her speech before 2,500 cheering people, many waving banners supporting the war effort, Mrs. Bush credited the home front with keeping morale high and helping to win the war.
She praised Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the allied forces, saying, "He's sort of like a cross between General Patton and Fozzie Bear."
Mrs. Bush also said her husband's "pass is signed" to take off and go hunting and fishing. "George, I hope you're listening," she said. "If you want to go, you may."
But the first lady also made sure to credit the thousands of reservists, both abroad and at home, whose help she said had been indispensable.
"Please don't think for one minute that your long hours and extra effort have gone unappreciated," Mrs. Bush said. "You are the crucial part of the victory. We could not have made it without you."
The words were welcomed by the families she met with before the speech.
"I think we are very honored that the wife of the president of the United States, the commander in chief, chose to come here and be with us," said Sue Ann Wingate, wife of Lt. Col. James Wingate, commander of the 85th Medical Battalion.
The battalion is one of two U.S. Army units permanently stationed at Fort Meade. Deployed to Saudi Arabia in October, it is responsible for moving soldiers from the front lines to aid stations.
As was the case with many others, Mrs. Wingate's enthusiasm was tempered by anxiety about the days ahead. "I think everybody here has got a caution about being too excited because of what Saddam Hussein might do," she said. "We don't trust him."
For some, just waiting to hear if their spouses would be called to duty in the Middle East had been the most traumatic. Lori Bodkin's husband didn't join the war until the start of the ground offensive.
"Waiting for them to call him over was worse then a roller coaster," said Mrs. Bodkin, whose husband, Phillip, is with the 201st Military Intelligence Battalion. "It did more to me physically, mentally and emotionally than if they had sent him over when it started."
"We do understand a little of what you are going through," Mrs. Bush told the audience. "The news from the gulf is good now, but I know you coped with the uncertainty and the loneliness and the fear over the past several months.
"Please note that George and I love every one of the soldiers as though they were our own son and daughter. With all the joy and pride we've shown today, we also show a great deal of sorrow for those precious young men and women who won't come home."
Before she visited Fort Meade to revel in news of the liberation of Kuwait, Mrs. Bush took time to celebrate a different kind of freedom during a stop in Baltimore.
"Learning is freedom," Mrs. Bush told a crowd of politicians, publishers, literacy experts and others at the the grand opening of the International Book Bank Inc.'s new headquarters in Baltimore.
The book bank is a non-profit organization founded in 1987 that seeks to improve literacy worldwide by sending donated books to other countries. It recently relocated from Chicago to East Baltimore.
Mrs. Bush joined Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and others in packing up the first books to be shipped from the warehouse. The books -- mostly texts -- will be shipped to Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia and the Caribbean.