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Vets Receive VP Salute, Unexpected Guest

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 20, 2001 – In a break from tradition, Dick Cheney changed the ceremony offering a salute to an incoming vice president. Far better, he said, to offer a salute of his own.

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Laura Bush, President-elect George Bush, Vice President-elect Dick Cheney and Lynne Cheney wave to the crowd during Cheney's Salute to America's Veterans in Washington Jan. 19. Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Jeffrey K. Cowins, USN
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

On the eve of the inauguration, the vice president-elect saluted America's veterans at George Washington University Smith Center here. He told the veterans his years as defense secretary were the most rewarding of his public life.

"It is sometimes said that heroes are hard to find," he noted. "But I never heard that said around the Pentagon. Those who would understand the meaning of duty, honor and country, need look no further than the nearest veteran of America's armed forces."

The United States is a peaceful nation and its people are reluctant warriors, Cheney told the veterans. "We take up arms only to protect our country, to throw back tyranny and to defend the cause of freedom, he said. At times the price has run high and never higher than in the last century with so many conflicts.

After acknowledging Secretary of State-designee Colin Powell, Defense Secretary-designee Donald Rumsfeld, Defense Secretary William Cohen, and others in the front row, Cheney paid tribute to the nearly 100 Medal of Honor recipients in the audience.

"When you meet one of them," he said, "remember the moment. For you have just met one of the bravest men in our nation's history.

After a nearly two-hour tribute of poignant tales of heroism, patriotic music and expressions of gratitude and pride, excitement among the several thousand veterans and family members ratcheted even higher when Cheney made a pledge to the military. Of the many duties the president and vice president were about to assume, he said, "none is greater than preparing the military for the challenges and the dangers to come.

"We will give them training that is thorough and missions that are clear," he vowed. "We will give them the kind of military where men and women are proud to serve and proud to stay. We will give them the respect they have earned and the support they deserve.

"All of this begins in less than 24 hours, when the Chief Justice administers the oath of office to the man I now present, the 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush.

Just for a moment, there was a hush -- as if everyone in the crowd was saying, 'Huh? What did he say?'

Then it registered. They realized the president-elect was making a surprise appearance. Carol Rascon, wife of Medal of Honor recipient Al Rascon, called the moment, electric.

Whistles, cheers, and applause burst from the crowd. From the stadium seats to the right and left, came a thundering rumble of stomping feet. Secret Service agents cleared the way as George "Dubya entered stage right.

"I'm certainly glad the vice president-to-be invited me," Bush said in amusement when the hoopla subsided. "It does not surprise me, however, that he turned the tribute that was supposed to be to him, to honor somebody else. That's why I picked him to be the vice president. He is a decent, honorable man.

Referring to the Medal of Honor recipients and other heroes in the audience, Bush said, "There are thousands of Americans who when called are willing to serve a cause greater than self. What an honor to be here."

Acknowledging those in the front row, Bush saluted his newly designated national defense team. "I believe, in all due respect to other presidents -- one whom I happen to know quite well -- that I believe the national security team that I put together is the best in our nation's history, led by Colin Powell and Don Rumsfeld.

"I look forward to hearing their opinions. I look forward to their advice. I look forward to doing what is right to make the world more peaceful.

Gladly noting active duty generals in the crowd, Bush stressed what he sees as the armed forces' overarching mission -- to be prepared, trained and ready to fight and win wars, and therefore prevent war from happening in the first place.

"In order to keep the peace our military must be strong, morale must be high," he said. Then, like Cheney, the president-elect made his pledge to the military. "We will make sure our soldiers are well paid and well housed, he vowed. "We will make sure our soldiers are well trained.

Bush then pointed out Tony Principi, on tap to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, who was also sitting in the front row. "In order to make sure that morale is high with those who wear the uniform today, we must keep our commitment to those who wore the uniform in the past, Bush said. "We will make sure promises made to our veterans will be promises kept.

"In less than 24 hours I have the highest honor and that's to become the commander-in-chief of the greatest nation in the world," he said. "I accept that honor with pride. I accept that honor with purpose. Thank you for having me. God bless America.

Several thousand veterans and family members attended the event emceed by Gerald McRaney, of television's "Major Dad." Actress Connie Stevens, who noted she's entertained G.I.s for five decades, sang "God Bless America.

Actor and former Marine Robert Conrad, former Senator and World War II veteran Bob Dole, and Senator and Vietnam veteran John McCain paid tribute to the men and women of the military past and present.

A Holocaust survivor, a woman whose fiance died in Vietnam, and a policeman whose life was saved by a National Guardsman spoke of how the American military members touched their lives. A video tribute highlighted the sacrifices of those who served in the nation's wars.

Veterans and family members throughout the crowd wiped away silent tears as Congresswoman Heather Wilson, an Air Force Academy graduate, paid homage to the POWs and those missing in action.

Cheney summed up the remarks of all when he said that all who have served the military have one thing in common. "In our countrys hour of need, they answered the call. They gave America the best years of their lives and they stood ready to give life itself."

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