In another lifetime, the reserves were dismissed as a haven for the well-to-do, a safe house where draft dodgers took refuge from combat duty. But all that was a memory last night, as the nation's military reservists basked in new-found glory.
At the annual Mid-Winter Conference of the Reserve Officers Association at the Washington Hilton, their commander in chief took the opportunity to acclaim the more than 100,000 reservist troops serving in the Persian Gulf, "earning the honor of a grateful nation."
"The citizen-soldiers serving now with the coalition forces in the gulf -- I salute them," President George Bush told his audience. Bush himself is a former reservist.
The audience cheered lustily and returned the compliment by bestowing on Bush the organization's Minute Man of the Year Award. "He is a man," gushed Maj. Gen. Robert C. Hope, president of ROA, "who understands the hardships of war ... who has the courage to stand up to aggression."
This was, as you can imagine, a gung-ho group, unrestrained by the war news coming out of the gulf. When Bush entered the ballroom, 1,500 men and women in their crisp dress uniforms cheered and whistled and waved their little American flags at him. And when an armed services band played the fight songs for each of the branches, the reservists stood on their chairs and waved their maroon napkins.
"This is the moment minutemen and women have devoted their lives to" explained Maj. Gen. Evan L. Hultman, executive director of ROA. "Reservists are a part of the defense of our nation, based on their grass-roots commitment."
Most agreed in deed that these are vindicating times for the reserves.
"It was always one army and one uniform," said Col. William Neely, a 50-year reservist. "The reservists have gone beyond all expectations in the gulf."
Col. Herb Hart said that the organization "pushed very hard" for the president to call up the reserves for this war. "People forget," he said, "that the decision not to call reserves for the Vietnam War was a political decision. There were a lot of reservists who wanted to go."
"We are using reservists like we were never using them before," said Stephen Duncan, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs. "These people who are serving today are highly motivated because they chose to serve. They want to be doing exactly what they are doing."
Security was exceptionally tight at the Washington Hilton. As usual when the president is on hand, all guests were required to move through metal detectors. However, outside, police cleared an entire city block next to the hotel before Bush arrived. Bomb-sniffing dogs were readily apparent. And waiters and catering staff were prohibited from entering the ballroom during the 20 minutes Bush spoke.
In his relatively short remarks, Bush reinforced his stance against Iraq. "Appeasement -- peace at any price -- was never an answer," he said. "Turning a blind eye to Saddam's aggression would not have avoided war. It would have only delayed the world's day of reckoning."
In strong terms he also assured the audience that the military campaign in the gulf is working: "We will stay the course and we will succeed all the way."
But he got his biggest reaction when he reiterated an earlier pledge that this war would not be another Vietnam. "Never again," he thundered, "will our armed forces be sent out to do a job with one hand tied behind their back."
Bush also repeated his outrage with Saddam Hussein's public display of the prisoners of war. "I knew, as they read their prepared statements criticizing this country, that those were false words, forced on them by their captors," he said. "One American pilot was asked why he was sure the pilots were coerced ... and he said: 'I know that because these guys are American.' "
The president's audience took to its feet when he left, applauding him wildly.