SUMTER,S.C. — SUMTER, S.C. -- They sat a few rows behind the president: Air Force Capt. Scott "Spike" Thomas, who was forced to eject from his plane behind enemy lines, and Lt. Nick Dodson, his pilot pal who made sure he was plucked from danger before Iraqi forces got there.
When George Bush referred to them in his speech before a gathering of several thousand Desert Storm warriors here, Captain Thomas reached for the lieutenant two seats away and hugged him.
"Here is what we fight for -- family, friends," Mr. Bush proclaimed, a slight catch in his voice. "Here is what we love."
A few moments later, Sig Rogitch, the White House's image man, put the president between the two and posed them for network television.
It might be a photo destined to reappear in the next presidential campaign. But for the moment, it was the highlight of the first of what the White House says will be many presidential welcomes for troops returning from the Persian Gulf.
"You all not only helped liberate Kuwait, you helped this country liberate itself from old ghosts and doubts," Mr. Bush told a gathering of more than 5,000 troops, their families, friends and neighbors at the Sumter High School Memorial Stadium near Shaw Air Force Base.
"When you left, it was still fashionable to question America's decency, America's courage, America's resolve," the president added. "No one -- no one in the whole world doubts us anymore."
nTC The event looked like a Sunday afternoon football game where the home team colors were desert camouflage: tan and brown. The crowd's chant of "Oo, oo, oo, oo" when Mr. Bush arrived was a melding of the Marine Corps grunt and Arsenio Hall's studio audience.
Yellow ribbons on the homes and street signs in town had been mostly replaced by red, white and blue combinations.
Troops have been returning here for the past few days to what Mr. Bush joked is the "mother of all units" at Shaw, a disparaging reference to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's threat to wage the "mother of all battles."
Many of those in the stadium yesterday had no relatives among the troops but said they turned out to show their support.
"I am so proud the troops are here," said Dotsy Felder, who sported a red, white and blue sweater and skirt with heart-shaped American flags as earrings. "We have been living with Shaw air base for years, but I never really appreciated it before."