Thursday, June 30, 2005

President Bush, who met with relatives of fallen soldiers before Tuesday’s Fort Bragg speech, was urged to stay the course in Iraq by a woman who gave him a bracelet honoring her late husband.

“I said: ‘I know people are pushing you, but please don’t pull the guys out of Iraq too soon,’” said Crystal Owen, whose husband, Staff Sgt. Mike Owen, was killed in Iraq last year.

“Don’t let my husband — and 1,700-plus other deaths — be in vain,” she added during a private meeting with Mr. Bush at the North Carolina base. “They were over there, fighting for a democratic nation, and I hope you’ll keep our service members over there until the mission can be accomplished.”

Mrs. Owen gave the president a stainless steel bracelet engraved with the names of her husband and another soldier, Cpl. John Santos, both of whom were killed on Oct. 15.

The president slipped the bracelet on his left wrist and wore it throughout his 28-minute prime-time address to the nation, becoming visibly emotional at times.

“We have lost good men and women who left our shores to defend freedom and did not live to make the journey home,” he said as his eyes turned glassy. “I’ve met with families grieving the loss of loved ones who were taken from us too soon.”

Before his speech, as is his custom, the president met for three hours with more than 90 spouses, children and parents of 32 soldiers killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The last person he met was Mrs. Owen.

“Even though he’d met with 31 other families prior to me, it was like I was the only one — I mean, he made me feel special,” she told The Washington Times yesterday. “He wanted to know about Mike and about me and if I was OK.

“I did get teary-eyed and he kind of held my hands for a while,” she added. “He was very sincere and gave me a kiss on the cheek as he left — I was a little flabbergasted.”

The only other people in the room were two Secret Service agents and a photographer for the White House, which declined to release photos.

Mr. Bush has always barred press coverage of his meetings with family members of fallen soldiers.

“It’s a time for the president to comfort the families and reassure them that the world is going to be a more peaceful place because of their loved ones,” explained White House press secretary Scott McClellan.

“There were a lot of hugs,” he said of the Tuesday meeting. “They shared some tears and some laughs.”

Mr. Bush has long been criticized by Democrats for not attending the funerals of Americans who have died in the war against terrorism. But White House officials say the president does not want to disrupt public services or create the appearance that he favors one family over another.

The practice began on Sept. 14, 2001, when the president spent hours visiting relatives of those who had been killed in the World Trade Center three days earlier.

During the highly emotional gathering in Manhattan, Mr. Bush alternately laughed and cried with the families, posing for pictures and giving autographs.

Since then, he has continued the somber ritual by meeting with hundreds of relatives of slain soldiers at such military bases as Fort Stewart, Ga.; Fort Polk, La.; and Fort Lewis, Wash.

At Fort Campbell, Ky., in 2004, he met with 133 relatives of 46 fallen service members. While at Fort Hood, Texas, in April, he met with 90 family members of 33 slain soldiers.

The president wept during a meeting one year ago at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. In December, he posthumously awarded a Bronze Star during a meeting with 50 family members at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Although not all family members agree with the president’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, many reported being deeply moved by their sessions with him. These include Dave Bader, whose brother, Staff Sgt. Daniel Bader, was killed in Iraq.

“He was just a regular American who came to talk to us,” he told the Denver Post after meeting with Mr. Bush at Fort Carson, Colo., in November, 2003. “I was touched by that.”

Others used their meetings with the president to counsel perseverance in the face of withering domestic criticism.

“Mike believed in him,” Mrs. Owen said. “He was his commander in chief and would have done anything he was ordered to do.

“I was proud to be a military wife,” she added. “And I was very honored that the president would take time out to meet with me personally.”

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