President Bush rallies the troops at Mayport
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)--On the brink of America's likely war with Iraq, President Bush saluted thousands of sailors, families and civilians at Mayport Naval Station Feb. 13, appealing to their sense of justice, pointing out the danger of inactivity and drawing on the nation's historical response to crises.
Flanked by the guided missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea and the guided missile frigate USS DeWert, Bush, wearing a Navy flight jacket, called the U.S. military "second to none" and said the nation can depend on them "in this challenging period for our country."
Bush said the United States has waited 12 years since the suspension of the Gulf War for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to rid that country of chemical and biological weapons. "This nation will not accept a serious and mounting threat to our nation, our people, and our friends and allies," Bush said, noting Hussein's "stalling."
Though it remains America's "last option," Bush said military force might become necessary to "secure our country and to keep the peace."
"Hussein is not disarming, he's deceiving," Bush said. "America will act deliberately, America will act decisively, and America will act victoriously with the world's greatest military."
Some of the sailors and other Navy personnel at Mayport returned only recently from the Gulf region where they completed missions in Afghanistan. In August, the USS John F. Kennedy, currently undergoing repairs, returned home after four months in the North Arabian Sea where its sailors and pilots provided forces for Operation Enduring Freedom.
"You defended the American people. And each and every one of you here has made America proud," Bush said.
The event marked the first time Air Force One has landed at Mayport's 8,000-foot runway, and the second time President Bush has made an official visit to Jacksonville.
The president was welcomed on the warm, sunny day in Florida by his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, whose leadership he lauded.
"He's doing everything just like this mother told him to," Bush quipped after giving Jeb Bush a bear hug in front of the laughing crowd. "I'm listening to the same mother, I want you to know."
One of the sailors singled out for special attention from the president was Senior Chief Arden Battle who coordinates volunteer efforts for the USS John F. Kennedy. Bush said Arden "represents the spirit of this military that makes me proud."
Calling the sailors "tough and good fighters," Bush credited Battle for enlisting sailors to also be role models for children, to volunteer in the community in Jacksonville.
"A lot of people look up to you because you wear the uniform," Bush told the sailors. "Do your duty. Not only work hard to be a good soldier and sailor, but also love somebody like you'd like to be loved yourself."
The president's 30-minute speech marked Bush's 13th trip to Florida since his election. The first was in September 2001, when his visit to an elementary school was cut short by news of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
Recognizing Mayport's military presence, spanning six decades since WWII, Bush said the port has previously "been home to generations of sailors who fought America's battles with distinction and courage," but who are now called upon to "defend American against a new kind of enemy."
"This enemy reaches across oceans; it targets the innocent. There are no rules of war for these cold-blooded killers," Bush said. "The enemy will not be restrained by mercy or by conscience."
Bush's strongly worded address and allusions to Sept. 11, 2001, and the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 brought the crowd to repeated applause.
"The terrorists brought this war to us, and now we're taking it back to them," Bush said. "We're on their trail, we're smoking them out, we've got them on the run. We're hunting them down, one by one, all across the world."
Referring to the 3,000 suspected terrorists who have been arrested in the United States and overseas -- many of whom are connected to the al Qaeda network, Bush said, "Just about that number met a different kind of fate. They're not a problem anymore."
Touching on the skepticism of the United Nations to be decisive about supporting actions against Iraq, Bush said "an overwhelming majority of NATO members" oppose Iraq's threat.
Rhetorically addressing the U.N., and expressing optimism that the U.N. Security Council will seek to ensure Saddam Hussein complies with its directive, Bush asked, "When you say something, does it mean anything?"
"I believe when it's all said and done, free nations will not allow the United Nations to fade into history as an ineffective, irrelevant debating society," Bush said. "I'm optimistic that free nations will show backbone and courage in the face of true threats to peace and freedom."
Assuring the crowd that the United States had already put into place a plan to supply food and other humanitarian relief to the Iraqi people if conflict does occur, Bush reminded them that the men and women of the military will decide "the success of our cause."
"Our military will be fighting the oppressors of Iraq, not the people of Iraq," Bush said. "America's military fights not to conquer, but to liberate."
The president, who also ate with sailors on the USS Philippine Sea, recalled that the first time the USS Enterprise was deployed in a crisis was in October 1962. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, then-President John F. Kennedy ordered the massive aircraft carrier to blockade Cuba to stave off the threat of a nuclear attack.
"President Kennedy understood that dangers to freedom had to be confronted early and decisively," Bush said. "[Kennedy] said of the Cold War, 'These are extraordinary times. We face an extraordinary challenge. Our strength, as well as our convictions have imposed upon this nation the role of leader in freedom's cause.'"
With a reminder that "our generation is called to a central role in this nation's history," Bush said, "... in freedom's cause, we will prevail."
"May God bless you all. May God bless our family -- your families -- and may God continue to bless the United States of America."
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness at www.floridabaptistwitness.com. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: STIRRING THE TROOPS.