FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — President Obama met Friday with some of the Navy SEALs who raided Osama bin Laden’s compound and killed him, part of a day of events marking bin Laden’s death that was far more celebratory than was Obama’s solemn appearance a day earlier at Ground Zero in New York.
In private meetings at this Army installation, Obama and Vice President Biden congratulated members of the elite Navy SEAL Team 6 and units that supported their mission, presenting them with the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest award for a military unit, a senior White House official said.
Obama was given a briefing on the bin Laden operation that included photos and a scale model of the compound, the official said.
Afterward, Obama publicly praised both the troops who killed bin Laden and those who serve throughout Afghanistan, including brigades from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, which is based at Fort Campbell. The more than 2,000 soldiers who heard the president in a hangar shouted and cheered throughout his speech, a marked break from the more formal appearances the president has made since bin Laden’s death.
“I came here for a simple reason: to say thank you on behalf of all America. This has been a historic week in the life of our nation. Thanks to the incredible skill and courage of countless individuals, intelligence, military, over many years, the terrorist leader who struck our nation on 9/11 will never threaten America again,” Obama said to loud applause.
The president said his meeting with Special Operations forces “was a chance for me to say on behalf of all Americans and people around the globe, job well done, job well done.”
“These Americans deserve credit for one of the greatest intelligence and military operations in our nation’s history,” he said.
The identities of the men who killed bin Laden are likely to remain secret. White House officials released few details of Friday’s meetings and would not formally confirm whether Obama met members of SEAL Team 6, whose existence is classified.
But the always-candid Biden gave a strong hint. Beaming as he introduced Obama at the hangar, the vice president told the troops that he had tried to explain to one of his granddaughters what he was going to do in Kentucky, and she had replied, “My pop’s going out to see the whales.”
Joining Biden and Obama in the private meetings were Adm. Eric T. Olson, the commander of U.S. Special Operations, and Vice Adm. William H. McRaven, the head of Joint Special Operations Command and the man who directed the SEALs’ mission. Nearly 80 U.S. commandos were involved in the top-secret mission, including about two dozen who entered bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The president also met with members of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, which provided the helicopters that took the members of Team 6 to bin Laden’s compound.
A dog that took part in the raid also was present, aides said.
Obama used his appearance to speak broadly about the war in Afghanistan, where he has pledged to start reducing troops by July. About 1,000 soldiers from Fort Campbell returned this week from deployments, but more than 7,000 remain in Afghanistan, a base spokesman said.
“Our strategy is working, and there is no greater evidence of that than justice finally being delivered to Osama bin Laden,” Obama said.
Some lawmakers in both parties disagree with that assessment and have called for withdrawing forces more quickly than Obama supports.
Sgt. Marcus Miller, who recently returned from Afghanistan and heard Obama’s speech, said, “Everybody had a sense of accomplishment” following news of bin Laden’s death.
But Spec. Miranda Dillon said, “I’m glad bin Laden is gone, but there are still how many people standing behind him.”
Staff writers William Branigin and Anne E. Kornblut in Washington contributed to this report.