- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2001

President Bush took to the field yesterday at a sprawling Army base in Georgia to make good on a campaign promise to "reward courage and idealism" in the armed forces, drawing a boisterous "Hooah" from soldiers in the 3rd Infantry Division.

Meanwhile, a White House budget official in Washington disputed recent press reports that said the president would not propose military increases beyond President Clinton's plan. In fact, the official said, Mr. Bush's 2002 Pentagon budget will be $14 billion higher.

The new commander in chief, making his first appearance before his troops, announced $5.7 billion in spending initiatives to cover pay raises and retention incentives, increased health benefits and housing improvements.

"The freedom and security you make possible improve our quality of life every day," Mr. Bush told hundreds of camouflage-clad, cheering soldiers in an 11-minute address at Fort Stewart, Ga. "Our nation can never fully repay our debt to you. But we can give you our full support, and my administration will."

Mr. Bush pledged to fix the problems plaguing the military, from low pay and poor housing to drooping morale and flagging recruitment.

"While you're serving us well, America is not serving you well enough… . This is not the way a great nation should reward courage and idealism. It's ungrateful, it's unwise and it is unacceptable."

Nearly 10,000 soldiers and family members braved bitter cold to attend the ceremony. The crowd erupted when the president's Marine One helicopter broke through the overcast sky.

"You're among the first in the Army to hear me extend 'Hooah,' " he told members of the division, who call themselves "dog-faced soldiers." The crowd returned the greeting, some barking loudly.

Meanwhile yesterday, the White House budget office asserted that, contrary to press reports over the past week, Mr. Bush in fact is proposing increases about $14 billion in the 2002 Pentagon budget beyond Mr. Clinton's plan.

"It was not comparing apples to apples," said Chris Ullman, spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget. He said reporters were taking this year's top line of $296 billion, which does not include Energy Department nuclear weapons accounts, and comparing it with Mr. Clinton's 2002 budget, which does include Energy.

Mr. Ullman said Mr. Bush will propose $310 billion in non-Energy defense spending, roughly a 5 percent increase over the $296 billion sum.

The $14 billion includes $1 billion for a 4.6 percent pay raise effective in January, $400 million to complete a pay raise enacted last year, $400 million for housing and $3.9 billion for health care. Other money will cover inflation and weapons research and development, Mr. Ullman said.

Mr. Bush has been criticized by pro-defense lawmakers for refusing to immediately submit to Congress the Joint Chiefs of Staff's request for $7 billion in emergency funds in the 2001 budget.

Despite the criticism, the president, who campaigned on a theme of "help is on the way" to the armed forces, has not backed off his resistance to funding emergency items such as spare parts, fuel and ammunition. He says any substantial boost to future defense budgets must await his ordered "top to bottom" review of force structure to meet shifting post-Cold War threats.

Sen. John W. Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, urged Mr. Bush in a letter last week to seek an emergency spending bill. Yesterday, he put in a pitch again.

"I commend President Bush for proposing to dedicate $5.7 billion for increases in pay and improvements in housing and health care," the Virginia Republican said. "This is an excellent first step in the effort to keep faith with the men and women in uniform and their families. I support strongly the president's initiative to pursue strategic assessments. I continue to believe, however, that there is a necessity to have a supplemental appropriations bill before July 4 to address immediate personnel and readiness needs."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, defended the state of the military during the campaign against Mr. Bush's charges that the armed forces were in bad shape.

But yesterday, the former vice-presidential candidate seemed to agree with that charge and questioned whether the president was going back on a campaign promise by not submitting an emergency spending request to Congress.

"Now that he is in the White House, President Bush seems content to tell our fighting forces not that help is on the way, but that the check is in the mail," Mr. Lieberman said. "I am today sending a letter to the president urging him to reconsider his decision regarding defense spending."

Some soldiers said help cannot come soon enough.

"When I first came here, we had three soldiers living together in buildings for single soldiers," said Sgt. Matthew D. Moran, who enlisted four years ago. "Now, we have five."

Maj. Mike Birmingham said the Army spends most of its money on training while neglecting its infrastructure.

"If you don't recapitalize housing, training ranges or barracks and you put all your money into trying to stay ready, you start losing the quality of life," he said.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who accompanied Mr. Bush yesterday, is conducting a comprehensive study of the military, including its strategy, missions, modernization priorities and nuclear weapons arsenal before he decides on overall defense spending.

In Georgia, local schools canceled classes for the day and hundreds of children joined their parents for the ceremony. Soldiers stood atop howitzers which later blasted out a 21-gun salute tanks and personnel carriers to catch a glimpse of the 43rd president.

Mr. Bush reviewed the troops, standing ramrod straight as he walked the line as officers barked: "Ten-hut. Eyes right." Several times, he snapped off smart salutes in return.

Fort commander Maj. Gen. Walter J. Sharp lauded Mr. Bush as "a leader who understands that the foundation of peace is a strong and capable military."

"Sir, thank you for recognizing that the defense of our nation is our No. 1 priority," the general said.

Mr. Bush's warm reception was in stark contrast to Mr. Clinton's shaky ties to the military. Mr. Clinton was disliked by many soldiers because of his highly publicized efforts to avoid the Vietnam War and his early push to allow homosexuals in the military.

• Joseph Curl reported from Fort Stewart, Ga.; Rowan Scarborough from Washington.

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