At Fort Benning, a Quiet Response to a Presidential Visit
Friday, January 12, 2007
FORT BENNING, Ga., Jan. 11 -- The pictures were just what the White House wanted: A teary-eyed President Bush presenting the Medal of Honor posthumously to a slain war hero in the East Room, then flying here to join the chow line with camouflage-clad soldiers as some of them prepare to return to Iraq.
There are few places the president could go for an unreservedly enthusiastic reception the day after unveiling his decision to order 21,500 more troops to Iraq. A military base has usually been a reliable backdrop for the White House, and so Bush aides chose this venerable Army installation in western Georgia to promote his revised strategy to the nation while his Cabinet secretaries tried to sell it on Capitol Hill.
To ensure that there would be no discordant notes here, Maj. Gen. Walter Wojdakowski, the base commander, prohibited the 300 soldiers who had lunch with the president from talking with reporters. If any of them harbored doubts about heading back to Iraq, many for the third time, they were kept silent.
"It's going to require sacrifice, and I appreciate the sacrifices our troops are willing to make," Bush told the troops. "Some units are going to have to deploy earlier than scheduled as a result of the decision I made. Some will remain deployed longer than originally anticipated."
Among those going early will be members of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team from the 3rd Infantry Division based here. Theirs was the division that spearheaded the invasion into Iraq in March 2003 and captured Baghdad. They returned in 2005 and lost 34 troops. Now, instead of heading back in May or June, they will return to Iraq in March.
Soldiers being soldiers, those who met the commander in chief Thursday saluted smartly and applauded politely. But it was hardly the boisterous, rock-star reception Bush typically gets at military bases. During his lunchtime speech, the soldiers were attentive but quiet. Not counting the introduction of dignitaries, Bush was interrupted by applause just three times in 30 minutes -- once when he talked about a previous Medal of Honor winner from Fort Benning, again when he pledged to win in Iraq and finally when he repeated his intention to expand the Army.
Bush's speech essentially repeated his address to the nation the night before, and he appeared a little listless as he talked. Aides said he was deliberately low-key to reflect the serious situation. Whether the audience was sobered by the new mission or responding to Bush's subdued tone was unclear, because reporters were ushered out as soon as his talk ended.
White House officials had promised reporters they could talk with soldiers. But that was not good enough for Wojdakowski. "The commanding general said he does not want media talking to soldiers today," spokeswoman Tracy Bailey said. "He wants the focus to be on the president's speech." Only hours later, after reporters complained, did the base offer to make selected soldiers available, but the White House plane was nearing departure.
For Bush, it was a day of military events and images. He began at the White House, presenting the Medal of Honor to the parents of a Marine slain in Iraq. Cpl. Jason Dunham, who died after falling on a grenade to save colleagues two years ago, became the second service member in Iraq to receive the nation's highest military decoration.
After flying here, Bush attended a U.S. Army Airborne School training demonstration as troops parachuted out of a helicopter. He also met privately with the families of 25 soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
White House counselor Dan Bartlett said Bush was impressed by the "warm reception." "The perception is he's coming here to motivate the troops," Bartlett said, "but it has as much of an impact on him."