Bush army base visit honors fallen in Iraq

President meets privately with families of dead, has lunch with troops in Colo.

November 25, 2003|By Maura Reynolds | Maura Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

FORT CARSON, Colo. - President Bush honored the fallen and consoled their bereaved families yesterday in a visit to this sprawling Army base that has lost 31 soldiers since the conflict began in Iraq.

The president lunched with troops, met privately with families and delivered his most extensive commentary to date on the growing number of casualties in Iraq.

"Every person who dies in the line of duty leaves a family that lives in sorrow and comrades who must go on without them," the president told thousands of servicemen and women crowded into an airplane hangar.

"All our military families that mourn can know this: Our nation will never forget the sacrifice their loved one made to protect us all."

After the speech, Bush met privately with families of 26 Fort Carson soldiers who have died in Iraq, some of them in the Nov. 2 downing of a Chinook helicopter that killed 16. White House officials said 98 family members were expected to attend.

Bush and his administration have come under increasing attack in recent weeks for taking measures that appeared aimed at distancing the president from the rising death toll in Iraq.

Most controversial is the Pentagon's ban on photographing the arrival of coffins at Dover Air Force Base, home of the military's mortuary - a prohibition technically on the books since 1991 but rarely enforced until the Iraq war began.

White House officials say Bush eschews public memorials in favor of private meetings with families, which he feels show more respect for their grief.

"The president believes that this is an appropriate way to meet with them, to meet privately with them, to express his appreciation both as commander-in-chief and on behalf of the American people for all that these families have sacrificed," White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said on the way to Fort Carson.

Fort Carson - the home of several premier fighting units, including the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment - has sent 12,000 troops to Iraq, the largest deployment from this base near the Rocky Mountains since World War II.

The president described the conflict in Iraq as part of a war that "began more than two years ago, on Sept. 11, 2001," and argued that U.S. involvement would help make the country more secure.

"The work we are in is not easy, yet it is essential. The failure of democracy in Iraq would provide new bases for the terrorist network and embolden terrorists and their allies around the world," said Bush, who had replaced his suit jacket with an olive drab military jacket.

"The failure of democracy in those countries would convince terrorists that America backs down under attack. ... Terrorists have chosen to make a stand and test our resolve. Our resolve will not be shaken."

The audience of about 5,000 military personnel and families crammed into a hangar at Butts Army Air Field gave the president a rousing welcome, with shouts of "U.S.A." and traditional whoops. At the close of his remarks, one section began a chant of "Four more years."

Before leaving for Colorado, Bush stopped at the Pentagon to sign a bill authorizing $401 billion in military spending, including a 4.15 percent raise for personnel and raises in combat and family separation pay.

Bush is spending this week at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, and will travel to Nevada and Arizona Tuesday to speak about Medicare and attend campaign fund-raising events.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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