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“He, in his travels, spends time with the families of the fallen. If he goes down to Fort Bragg, he’ll often times pull together the families of guys who were stationed at Bragg and killed in action, and spend time with the families,” Mr. Cheney told The Times in an interview last week.

Mr. Bush did just that when he visited Fort Bragg, N.C., in 2002, rallying 2,000 special-operation soldiers stationed at the base, which would send thousands of men to the two wars, hundreds of whom would never return. “I want their families to know that we pray with them, that we honor them, and they died in a just cause, for defending freedom, and they will not have died in vain,” he told the troops, his voice choking with emotion and his eyes welling up with tears.

That same month, in St. Petersburg, Fla., the president broke down in tears as he addressed the parents and family of one of the first soldiers to die in Afghanistan. “I know your heart aches, and we ache for you. But your son and your brother died for a noble and just cause,” he said as a tear rolled down his right cheek.

He stopped his speech, overcome by emotion as the crowd stood and cheered. His chin still quivering, he smeared away tears, smiled and shrugged his shoulders. Those were public events, but mirrored the scores of private meetings where emotions also ran deep.

“I do get a little emotional because it’s - I’m genuine when I say I’ll miss being the commander in chief,” the president told The Times. “I am in awe of our military. And I hold these folks in great respect. And I also sincerely appreciate the sacrifices that their families make.”

Mr. Bush sees his job as providing comfort to those who have sacrificed so much. “The definition of comfort is very interesting. Comfort means hug, comfort means cry, comfort means smile, comfort means listen. Comfort also means, in many cases, assure the parent or the spouse that any decision made about troops in combat will be made with victory in mind, not made about my personal standing in the polls or partisan politics.”

Asked where he gets the strength to meet with the families of soldiers whom he - as commnder in chief - sent to their deaths, he turned stern.

“You have to believe in the cause. You have to understand that - and believe we’ll be successful. If I didn’t believe in the cause, it would be unbelievably terrible. I believe strongly in what we’re doing. I believe it’s necessary for our security. And I believe history will justify the actions. …

“The interesting thing is, most of our troops fully understand this. They know we must defeat the enemy there so we don’t have to face them here. And in a place like Iraq, they fully understood that Iraq was a front for al Qaeda. And they saw their mission as one of defending America by defeating al Qaeda,” he told The Times.

Meeting with the families of the fallen has allowed the president to step out of the bubble that often surrounds him, to meet real people. “I find out a lot about the individuals when the families come and see me, because one thing they want to do is, they want to share. They want to share pictures or letters or moments.

“And I ask them to describe their loved one. What should I know about this person? Or they volunteer - ‘You’d like this guy.’ And many of them have said - it’s amazing, the comforter in chief oftentimes is the comforted person - comforted because of their strength, comforted because of their devotion, comforted because of their love for their family member. And a lot of them said, Mr. President, please know that my child wanted to do this.”

Mrs. Bush said she, too, is moved by their private meetings with relatives of the fallen.

“Visiting with the families of the fallen is one of the most touching, moving parts of this job that George has. I remember best the most recent, which was on the Intrepid on Veterans Day, when we met with nine different families. I remember them all very well, but one story that stands out in my mind was this sister who had written a biography of her brother that she lost.

“So she asked if she could read it to us. … It represents every single family that wanted us to know about their loved ones, and what they were like, what their sense of humor was like, what they liked to do, and what they were good at.”

The first lady said that many of the meetings have been kept private because “these are such personal times when people grieve. And we grieve with them. And these are not times when you would want a camera in the room or other people around. They are very emotional, personal times.

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