Fort Bragg, N.C. — President George W. Bush praised 82nd Airborne Division troops Thursday morning during a visit to Fort Bragg and said the U.S. cannot afford to pull back from the war on terror.
"You've taken the battle to the terrorists abroad so we don't have to face them here at home," Bush told an estimated 15,000 troops and family members, noting the 82nd Airborne has been the most-deployed Army division since 9/11 and "represents the vanguard of freedom."
"In your ranks, I see the strength of the greatest military the world has ever known," he said.
Bush also listed four conditions for Iraq that would define success in the war there: security from insurgents, a growing economy, a democratic government and becoming a U.S. ally in the war on terror.
"Success will be when al-Qaeda has no safe haven in Iraq and Iraqis can protect themselves," he said. "Success will be when Iraq is a nation that can support itself economically. Success will be when Iraq is a democracy that governs itself effectively and responds to the will of its people. Success will be when Iraq is a strong and capable ally in the war on terror.
"When our country succeeds in Iraq, generations of our country will be more secure."
Bush's visit highlighted All American Week events at Fort Bragg. The annual event had to be canceled last year because most of the troops at the base were deployed overseas.
Many of the units have rotated back home in recent months, and Bush recognized their efforts.
"We've asked a lot of you. You've achieved difficult kind of objectives in a new kind of war. You've performed with skill and honor," he said. "On behalf of a grateful nation, welcome home."
More troops will be coming home in the coming months, he said. By the end of July, troop levels in Iraq will be 25 percent lower than a year ago, he said.
Still, he vowed U.S. military leaders would have the necessary resources to succeed. Until then, continuing the war is worth the cost in lives and dollars, he said.
Senate Republicans broke with Bush Thursday to help Democrats add support for veterans and the unemployed to a bill paying for another year of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The 75-22 vote also adds billions of dollars in other domestic funds, such as heating subsidies for the poor and money for fighting wildfires, to the $165 billion for the military operations overseas.
The vote is a rebuke to Bush, who has promised to veto the measure if it contained the domestic measures. However, the president still has enough GOP support to sustain a veto.
"The United States Congress needs to pass a responsible war-funding bill that does not tie the hands of our commanders and gives the troops everything they need to complete and accomplish the mission," Bush said at Fort Bragg.
"The mission in Iraq ... will not come easily," he said. "But progress is undeniable. Because of your bravery and courage, the terrorists are on the run, and we are on the way to victory."
Lt. Col. Barry DeRuzza agreed with Bush's assessment of the situation in Iraq.
"From the area of operations that I operated in, I could see that every day – that there was progress and irreversible momentum," DeRuzza said.
Also during his visit, the president honored a local volunteer and attended a memorial service.
Bush presented the President's Volunteer Service Award to Amy Petrenko, an Army wife for 19 years. Petrenko has volunteered for the National Military Family Association for 11 years at Fort Bragg and other duty stations.
“I just look around and see if there's anything that needs to be done, and if I can fit it into my schedule, then I would try to get it in my schedule,” Petrenko said.
When soldiers are deployed, she has stepped up, helping spouses network and find resources for themselves and their children.
Petrenko is married to Col. Victor Petrenko, chief of staff of the 82nd Airborne. She also volunteers with the Child Advocacy Center of Cumberland County, the Military Affairs Council and the Boy Scouts of America.
About 150 members of Gold Star families – relatives of those killed – later joined Bush for a rededication of a growing granite memorial to the 82nd Airborne's fallen soldiers. Eighty-seven division troops died last year.
"We will always honor their memory, and we pledge their sacrifice shall not be in vain," he said.
Army wife Krystina Haines said she found comfort in the president's words.
"This is my husband's first time going overseas, and I think this will give him a little more motivation," Haines said.