In Final Weeks as Commander in Chief, Bush Cites Military’s Valor, Sacrifice
By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 6, 2009 With 15 days left in office, President George W. Bush today reflected on a list of “lasts” that includes his final weeks as the commander of U.S. military forces.
Bush told the audience at an armed forces farewell ceremony at Fort Myer, Va., that he recently took his final overseas flight on Air Force One and delivered his last college commencement address as president.
“These have all been wonderful experiences,” he said. “But nothing compares to the honor of standing before you today and addressing America's armed forces as your commander in chief.”
Bush described his role as the top military commander over a two-term legacy marked early on by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, followed by a broadly defined global war on terror that included the sometimes controversial invasion and ongoing occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The president cited servicemembers’ courage in responding to the Sept. 11 attacks that killed some 3,000 people, in the ensuing Operation Enduring Freedom, concentrated mainly in Afghanistan, and in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“I saw your valor in the days after the attack, when Americans crowded into recruiting centers, across our country, raised their hands to serve and pledged to defend our people and our freedom,” said Bush, referring to the hijacked airplane attacks in New York, on the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.
The president touted the U.S. military’s role in toppling the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, in which troops “closed down the terrorist training camps and … drove the Taliban from power” within weeks of the invasion.
He also praised servicemembers who volunteered for multiple tours in Iraq in support of the 33,000-troop surge launched in early 2007. Bush characterized the surge, which military officials credit as one factor leading to increased security and a drop in violence in Iraq, as “one of the great successes in American military history.”
The president said the cause that troops have served “has always been right and just,” but he conceded that his decisions as commander in chief have “not always been popular.”
Bush acknowledged sacrifices paid by those killed and wounded in battle, and the families who survive and support them. To date, 4,850 Americans have died in post-9/11 operations, and another 15,327 have been wounded without returning to duty.
The president highlighted the story of Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael A. Monsoor, a Navy SEAL who died in September 2006 in Iraq when he used his body to absorb a grenade blast that likely would have killed two nearby SEALs and several Iraqi soldiers.
In April, Bush presented a posthumous Medal of Honor to Monsoor’s parents.
“On that day, I saw the deep sadness that is familiar to anyone who has lost a loved one in the line of duty,” Bush said. “But I also saw the pride that comes with such noble sacrifice and the recognition that our freedom and our security only endure because of the acts of bravery like Michael Monsoor's.
“That kind of courage, character and devotion defines our armed forces,” he continued. “So this morning, I cannot accept your kind tribute unless I'm allowed to return the favor to the men and women of the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and all those who serve in the Department of Defense.”
As Bush relinquishes his post as commander in chief, President-elect Barack Obama is slated to take over the role Jan. 20. But a familiar face will remain at the helm of the Pentagon amid the transition.
Bush expressed confidence in Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, whom he appointed to replace former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and whom the president-elect has retained as Pentagon chief.
“I am pleased that President-elect Obama has asked you to stay on, and I am confident that you will continue to be a strong leader as the secretary of defense,” Bush said. He also praised Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for his “strong advice, clear thinking and years of service to our country.”