Bush Surprises Troops and the World With Thanksgiving Dinner in Baghdad
By Gene Harper
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 27, 2003 About 600 troops gathered for Thanksgiving Day dinner in Baghdad had a surprise guest: their commander in chief, President Bush.
Under the security of darkness and tight-lipped staff secrecy, the president arrived in Baghdad on Thanksgiving Day at Baghdad International Airport for a reported 2½-hour visit.
Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, Combined Joint Task Force 7 commander, and coalition administrator L. Paul Bremer were just finishing remarks to soldiers of the 2 Armored Cavalry Regiment and the 1st Armored and 82nd Airborne divisions and other guests at the start of what was supposed to be a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
President Bush meets with troops and serves Thanksgiving Day Dinner at the Bob Hope Dining Facility, Baghdad International Airport, Iraq,, Nov. 27. Photo by Tina Hager.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"It says here that I'm supposed to read the president's Thanksgiving proclamation," Bremer said. "But I thought the deal was for the most senior person to read it. Is that you, sir?" Bremer asked, turning to Sanchez. "Let's see if we've got anybody more senior here who can read the president's Thanksgiving speech. Is there anybody back there more senior than us?"
On cue, Bush walked into the area and up to the podium before a stunned crowd of soldiers. They immediately jumped to their feet and hailed him with sustained, thunderous applause and shouts of "hooah." The president's watery eyes showed his reaction.
"I was just looking for a warm meal somewhere. Thanks for inviting me," Bush said.
He acknowledged Iraqi Governing Council members on hand. "We're pleased you're joining us for one of our nation's great holidays, a chance to give thanks to the Almighty for the many blessings we've received." Then to the gathered service members he said, "I can't think of a finer group of folks to have Thanksgiving dinner with than you all.
"Today Americans are gathering with their loved ones to give thanks for the many blessings in our lives. And this year we're especially thankful for the courage and the sacrifice of those who defend us, the men and women of the United States military," the president said. "I bring a message on behalf of America: We thank you for your service. We're proud of you, and America stands solidly behind you.
"Together you and I have taken an oath to defend our country," the commander in chief told the troops. "You're honoring that oath. The United States military is doing a fantastic job."
He said that U.S. troops were on duty in Iraq "so that we don't have to face them in our own country."
"You're defeating Saddam's henchmen so that the people of Iraq can live in peace and freedom. By helping the Iraqi people become free, you're helping change a troubled and violent part of the world. By helping to build a peaceful and democratic country in the heart of the Middle East, you are defending the American people from danger, and we are grateful."
He recognized that the troops' engagement in a difficult mission. "Those who attack our coalition forces and kill innocent Iraqis are testing our will," Bush said.
"They hope we will run. We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq, pay a bitter cost in casualties, defeat a brutal dictator and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins," he said to raucous, sustained whoops of approval from the service members.
"We will prevail," Bush promised. "We will win because our cause is just. We will win because we will stay on the offensive. And we will win because you're part of the finest military ever assembled. And we will prevail because the Iraqis want their freedom."
Bush, in a first-ever U.S. presidential visit to Iraq, also brought a message to the Iraqi people. "You have an opportunity to seize the moment and rebuild your great country, based on human dignity and freedom. The regime of Saddam Hussein is gone forever," he declared.
He said the United States and its coalition partners would continue helping the Iraqi people build a peaceful country for a bright future for its children. "We'll help you find and bring to justice the people who terrorized you for years and are still killing innocent Iraqis. We will stay until the job is done," Bush said, again to long, thunderous approval from the troops. "I'm confident we will succeed, because you, the Iraqi people, will show the world that you're not only courageous, but that you can govern yourself wisely and justly."
Turning back to the troops, the president said the nation remembered its military on Thanksgiving Day, especially those "who paid the ultimate price for our security and freedom. We ask for God's blessings on their families, their loved ones and their friends, and we pray for your safety and your strength, as you continue to defend America and to spread freedom."
Bush said each service member had answered "a great call, participating in an historic moment in world history. You live by a code of honor, of service to your nation, with the safety and the security of your fellow citizens. Our military is full of the finest people on the face of the earth.
"I'm proud to be your commander in chief," Bush concluded. "I bring greetings from America. May God bless you all."
The president then made his way through the crowd of delighted service members, shaking hands, and talking and posing for photos with several them. He reportedly served food to the troops and ate. He boarded Air Force One and was wheels up 8 p.m. Baghdad time for the trip back to the States.