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Troops Bid Bush Farewell at Andrews Air Force Base

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Md., Jan. 20, 2009 – The U.S. military bid farewell today to the outgoing commander in chief during a stirring and emotional departure ceremony in which he called leading men and women in uniform the highlight of his presidency.

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Former President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush give a final wave to the crowd of more than 1,000 people gathered at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., prior to their final departure aboard Air Force One, Jan. 20, 2009. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Craig Clapper
  

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A joint service honor guard, military band and about 4,000 cheering, flag-waving fans greeted former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush as they arrived here from what’s been called “the ultimate change of command ceremony.”

The participants -- former staffers, invited guests and servicemembers and their families -- waited inside the 316th Airlift Wing’s Hangar Six to hail the president and former Vice President Dick Cheney. They watched the inaugural ceremonies on a jumbotron screen suspended from the hangar ceiling, then waited with anticipation as Bush lifted off from the Capitol grounds aboard the Marine Corps VH-3 helicopter referred to as “Executive One.”

The crowd roared as the former president and vice president made their dramatic entrance into the hangar. The rousing sounds of the “Air Force One” movie theme rung out as the huge hangar slowly opened, revealing the huge blue-and-white presidential aircraft glistening in the sunlight.

Children climbed onto their parents’ shoulders to catch a better glimpse, and spectators hoisted cameras high to capture the moment in history.

Bush admitted that he wasn’t sure how he would feel passing the presidency to the next administration, but declared, “I am thankful, I am grateful and I am joyful!”

“I’ve had a lot of great experiences,” as president, he told the group, but said none has been better than leading military members who have volunteered to serve the country in a time of danger. Bush said he’ll miss being commander in chief and being able to stand in front of the troops to tell them “how much we respect you and how much we admire you.”

Bush said he’ll leave the presidency with his “head held high,” confident that he took the right course in difficult times. Historians will sort out his time in office, he said, expressing belief that they’ll note “we did not shirk our duty, we did not shy away” from difficult decisions and that “we served with conviction.”

Cheney praised Bush for taking on “the big jobs that needed doing” after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks launched some of the greatest challenges to ever confront the United States. “George W. Bush protected America,” he said. “History remembers such leaders and marks them well.”

Bush shook hands with many in the crowd, then turned toward the VC-25 aircraft that would take him home to Texas. The flight was designated Special Air Mission 28000 rather than Air Force One, which belongs only to the airplane carrying the sitting president.

On the tarmac, Air Force Brig. Gen. Maggie Woodward, the 89th Airlift Wing commander, escorted the Bushes to a red carpet stretching to the aircraft. A 42-piece joint honor guard flanked both sides of the carpet.

At the end of the carpet, Air Force Col. Steven Shepro, commander of the 316th Wing, and Col. Eric Snadecki, his vice commander, said their final goodbyes before Bush climbed the steps to the plane.

Shepro said he felt honored for him and his airmen to bid a personal goodbye to the departing former president. “It’s like saying goodbye to an old friend,” he said. He credited his elite team that regularly serves the president -- with the Air Force’s only flightline protocol office and a second-to-none security detachment, among them -- with bringing honor to the Air Force.

“This is another moment in history that they share,” he said. “We’re giving him a fitting sendoff just like we always do.”

Command Chief James Davis, Andrews’ top noncommissioned officer, relished his base’s role in the inauguration and presidential departure ceremony. “We are a part of history, from the person working the logistics to the ones in the cordon to the ones marching in the parade,” he said.

“We’re all here to honor our former honor in chief as he departs,” said Army Sgt. Tyler Murray, one of six members of the 3rd Infantry Regiment “The Old Guard” to serve in the joint service honor guard. “President Bush has looked out for his troops, and we’re here to honor him.”

“I’ve been involved in a lot of high-priority missions,” said Army Pfc. Jared Robison, a fellow “Old Guard” soldier. “But this one is the highest on my list, personally.”

“It’s wonderful being a part of it, especially as a military member,” agreed Air Force Tech. Sgt. Steven Hawkens, from the 316th Security Forces. “It’s breathtaking, it’s exciting, it’s wonderful to see these things going on.”

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageFormer President George W. Bush and former Vice President Richard B. Cheney say their final farewells at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Jan 20, 2009. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Melissa Stonecipher   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageYoung fans at the departure ceremony for former President George W. Bush await his arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Jan. 20, 2009. DoD photo by Donna Miles  
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