President rallies nervous troops at Fort Hood
FORT HOOD, Texas — Fired-up soldiers cheered President Bush Friday as he told them they may be called into combat “to secure our country and to keep the peace.”
Privately, they showed more anxiety about the prospect of being sent to fight Iraq.
If it comes to war, “this generation of Americans is ready,” Bush said. “We accept the burden of leadership. We act in the cause of peace and freedom. And in that cause we will prevail.”
Fort Hood is home to some 42,000 troops — the most at any American military base. More than 25,000 fought in the 1991 Gulf War, and soldiers here would almost certainly be deployed in another war with Iraq.
While the soldiers Bush met here Friday brimmed with confidence, others confessed in interviews they are nervous.
“Anybody who said he is not nervous or scared is lying to himself,” said Spc. Eric Wilkerson, who has an 18-month-old daughter and a fiancee.
“I’ve always wanted to go to war, but now that it’s here, just the thought of getting killed makes me not want to go,” said Spc. Cody Newby.
Sgt. Santos Martinez said his mother had served in Vietnam, and her experience had acquainted him with the perils of war. But, he said: “I signed up. I volunteered to serve. If my country says it’s worth it, then personal thoughts aside, I say it’s worth it.”
Others, speaking privately, expressed doubts about the need for war with Iraq.
Bush delivered his rationale while emphasizing war is a last resort. As he laid out his case, the boisterous crowd of 4,000 camouflage-clad soldiers fell silent.
Iraq, he said, is a “great threat to the United States,” and Saddam Hussein has “publicly proclaimed his hatred for our country.”
Saddam has used weapons of mass destruction, has defied U.N. resolutions that he disarm and, most recently, “did not even attempt to submit a credible declaration” to the United Nations on his alleged stockpiles of weapons and his programs to develop more.
“If force becomes necessary to secure our country and to keep the peace, America will act deliberately, America will act decisively and America will prevail, because we’ve got the finest military in the world,” Bush said.
The crowd erupted in a deafening cry, “Hoo-ah!”
Bush devoted a single sentence to North Korea, another country he has branded part of an “axis of evil,” and one the United States says is now trying to build more nuclear weapons.
“In the case of North Korea, the world must continue to speak with one voice to turn that regime away from its nuclear ambitions,” he said.
The president helicoptered to Fort Hood from his Crawford ranch, and began his visit with an inspection of sand-colored military hardware: an Abrams tank, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, a mobile command center, an Apache helicopter and a Paladin howitzer.
Bush snapped salutes as he moved, with first lady Laura Bush and Texas Gov. Rick Perry at his side, stopping to greet dozens of soldiers in battle gear. Some wore night-vision goggles, others face paint and helmets with brush sticking out for further disguise.
“I’d like to introduce you to my combat-ready crew,” one proud solider told his commander in chief.
Later, Bush walked the food line at a Fort Hood cafeteria, loading up on roast beef, corn and mashed potatoes but passing on the broccoli.
“The food looks great,” Bush said. He declared the soldiers “well fed.”
Fort Hood sprawls across 350 square miles of central Texas plains and is home to the 1st Cavalry Division, a highly mobile unit that relies on helicopters and tanks.
It is also the home of another heavy-equipment unit, the 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized), which uses advanced digital systems to provide soldiers with a view of entire battlefields, faster communication and more accurate firepower.
Addressing another group of military personnel — members of the Florida National Guard preparing to leave for Fort Stewart, Ga. — Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., predicted Friday that the country will be at war with Iraq within weeks.
“I think we’re going to get into a hot war probably by the end of January,” Nelson told reporters. He said it will be “a fairly short war” followed by years of U.S. military involvement to stabilize the country.