FORT STEWART, GA., FEB. 1 -- President Bush, completing a daylong tour of three military bases along the East Coast, told the families of U.S. troops here that their support for him did as much for his morale as he might have done for theirs.

"I'm going home to see Barbara with my morale sky high because of the fantastic spirit" of the families, he told the group at the home of the Army's 24th Infantry Division, which was deployed to Saudi Arabia last August.

Bush, who had come to encourage and console the families, was given myriad tearful embraces and hearty cheers by the wives and mothers and children of the troops he sent to war.

Earlier at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, Bush told an audience of mostly women, many with babies in their arms or children clutching their hands, "I want you to know your loved ones, your parents, are enduring the hardships of war today so you may know the blessings of peace tomorrow."

The war, Bush told his listeners, "has been tough. It may get tougher."

To the children, he said, "No matter how much you depend on your parents, your country depends on them, too."

Throughout the day, he told families clutching pictures of their service relatives, some with tears rolling down their cheeks, that they and their loved ones were "American heroes."

To relatives of U.S. troops being held in Iraq, some of whom he met in private sessions on the bases, Bush said, "A lifetime of democracy and faith in God keeps their spirit free. No foreign dictator can imprison the love of liberty that beats in the hearts of every American."

Referring to the massive praise of U.S. troops that dominated his State of the Union address Tuesday, the president said, "I hope that {Iraqi President} Saddam Hussein, in his bunker somewhere in Baghdad, saw every single minute of it. And if he had, and if he did, maybe he now understands that we are a nation united in support of our troops."

While Bush made brief remarks at each of his stops, which started at the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station near Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, he spent far more time wading into crowds of ecstatic military families.

A picnic at the Seymour Johnson base park in Goldsboro, N.C., turned into nearly 30 minutes of encounters, despite the heavy security that surrounds the president. Hundreds, mostly women, pressed against security rope lines waving virtually anything that would take a signature for his autograph and shouting support.

Bush scratched his name on matchbooks and napkins and paper cups and shoulders of people wearing Operation Desert Storm sweatshirts. Dozens of women and children held out snapshots of their loved ones, many of them apparently taken in the desert of Saudi Arabia, for the president to sign.

One woman deep in the crowd pressed into Bush's hand a Desert Shield metal bracelet engraved with the name of her husband, Airman 1st Class Robert R. Mickle, Jr. "Wear this for my husband," she shouted, "Please wear it for my husband." Bush slipped it around his wrist.

Another woman, clutching a picture she said was of her husband who had volunteered and left for Saudi Arabia in August, fell sobbing into Bush's embrace. He kissed the top of her head and whispered something to her.

In one surreal scene, Bush sat at a picnic table eating barbeque and cornbread while several hundred people, who already had eaten, simply stared intently at him.

Earlier, Bush accepted a hand-decorated sweatshirt that one serviceman said was the rage at all the military installations. The shirt, which Bush glanced at and then clutched to his chest, offered a raunchy rendition of an "Iraqi Scud Attack." It pictured a camel with a missile stuffed in its mouth being goaded from behind by an Arab sheik.