By Donna Miles
WASHINGTON, July 26, 2006 – President Bush introduced Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to "some of the finest citizens in the United States of America" at Fort Belvoir, Va., today. Bush and Maliki visited the northern Virginia post, which is home to 120 military organizations representing every branch of the service, to thank about 300 servicemembers, military family members and civilian employees for their support for the war on terror.
Defeating terrorism is essential for freedom to succeed, Bush said. "And that's why we've sent some of our finest citizens to help you, Mr. Prime Minister," he told Maliki at the Fort Belvoir Community Club. "We want you to succeed. And I'm confident we will succeed." Bush promised Maliki that the United States will stand by its promise and complete the mission in Iraq. "We owe it to those who've served in combat," he said. "We owe it to those who've lost a limb. We owe it to those who've lost a life."
The president singled out a Fort Belvoir soldier, Army Sgt. 1st Class Scott Smith, who died July 17 in Iskandariyah, Iraq, of injuries suffered when an improvised explosive device detonated during a controlled ordnance-clearing mission. Smith, age 34, was assigned to the 52nd Ordnance Group's 737th Explosive Ordnance Detachment.
"He helped save lives. He helped lay the foundation for peace," Bush told the group of their fallen comrade. "And in honor of his memory and ... the memory of others who have gone before him, in honor of the thousands of Iraqis who have died at the hands of terrorists, we will complete the mission."
Maliki saluted the troops for what they have offered Iraq. The prime minister told the servicemembers that Iraqis will never forget the sacrifices American troops have made for them. He said he understands all too well the pain those losses bring because 67 of his family members were executed under Saddam Hussein's regime.
"On behalf of myself and...the Iraqi people, I would like to thank you and thank your families," he said. "I would like to appreciate your losses, your sacrifices, ... the bitterness of those who have lost loved ones," he said. "We feel pain and sorrow for every drop of blood that falls in Iraq."
Terrorists will continue violence as they attempt to kill democracy, Maliki said. "But they will fail, because we are committed to success, and we are committed to democracy," he said. "And we are confident that we will succeed, because you and people like you are helping us to confront terrorism."
Servicemembers at the session said they felt awed to meet the president and prime minister and inspired by their message. "It was pretty awesome that they took time out of their busy schedules to thank us personally for our service," said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Dan Medina, an instructor with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency who is stationed at Fort Belvoir.
Medina said he was particularly struck by Bush's message that every servicemember's job is important to the mission, and that family members serve the country right alongside military members. After three deployments to Iraq, Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Jerome Leary said today's visit gave him confidence that the U.S. mission there is progressing. Leary, also an instructor at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, said it was heartwarming to hear both Bush and Maliki thank the troops for their support before shaking every hand in the audience and posing for photos around the room.
"It felt good to hear them say that they know the sacrifices servicemembers and their families are making and appreciate those sacrifices," the 15-year Marine said. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Onyiego Ochieng said he felt "really touched" that Bush described him and his fellow servicemembers as America's finest. "It felt really special to have him personally thank us and tell us on a personal level that he appreciates what we do," said Ochieng, branch chief for the Joint Personal Property Shipping Office, at Fort Belvoir.
Ochieng remembered back to the first days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, when he was deployed in the Persian Gulf aboard USS Austin. Today's visit by the democratically elected prime minister of Iraq brought that experience full circle, he said. "He told us he understands our sacrifices, knows we will succeed and believes in what we are doing," he said. "It was really powerful."
For Army Staff Sgt. Carlton Hunter, a personnel noncommissioned officer in Fort Belvoir's Adjutant General's office, today's visit was an eye-opener. Hunter is due to move to Fort Drum, N.Y., in October to become part of the 10th Mountain Division and expects that a deployment to Iraq is in his future. Hunter said the visit reinforced his belief in the U.S. mission in Iraq. "I completely support it, and am looking forward to going over there," he said.
The nine-year-Army veteran said he was surprised at his own reaction to President Bush. "It was a little overwhelming, a lot different than I expected after seeing him so much on TV," he said. "I couldn't stop smiling."