He was witness to a remarkable event

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Several days ago I received an All Hands e-mail asking anyone who was in Baghdad and wanted to go to a Thanksgiving Dinner with the troops to respond. The e-mail said there would be a lottery drawing for the few seats available. This morning I received notice that I had won (!) and to go to a meeting point at 1500. I arrived at the airport with about 15 to 20 others, and was escorted into the huge chow hall where several hundred soldiers were sitting. I found an empty spot and started chatting with the men and women in uniform. We talked about home and what we are doing here. Time ticked on – and we were there over an hour, waiting for something…anything.

Ambassador Bremer and General Sanchez came in – still nothing. What were we waiting for, I wondered. The guys were more patient than I – just shrugging their shoulders and looking more and more unimpressed. After a while an American General stood up and introduced Sanchez and Bremer. They said they wanted to read the President’s Thanks-giving declaration, but wanted the most senior person to deliver it. Who is more senior than those two, we wondered aloud. Then pandemonium. Literally screaming, jumping and clapping. Who is it, I asked? The President! Then I too leapt up from my seat, not believing my ears. It was an extremely emotional moment for everyone there. He said, ‘I was just looking for a warm meal somewhere. Thank you for inviting me to dinner.’

His speech was wonderful, every word, and he ended it with, ‘and you live by a code of honor, of service to your nation for the safety and security of your fellow citizens. Our military is full of the finest people on the face of the earth. I’m proud to be your commander in chief. I bring greetings from America. May God bless you all.’

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There were at least two standing ovations – again, very emotional and deeply felt by all. Then the President stepped into the crowd and greeted people for more than an hour. Actually more like two hours. He shook everyone’s hand – and made a point of it. He would see someone being pushed aside and say ‘Hey, I’m headed your way.’ And the guys loved him. Adored him. Because they could see he was their guy. He shook my hand, too! Wow! I’ll tell you – meeting the President of the United States is thrilling. Especially when you are in Iraq. After the hundreds of handshakes and photographs he said a quick goodbye and Happy Thanksgiving and then no-one could leave the airport for an hour until Air Force One was well on it’s way. I am still glowing.&uot;

The closest I ever came to such a thrilling moment was when Sir Winston Churchill was driven in an American jeep across one of the bridges we constructed across the Rhine River in March of 1944. We were tired, hungry, haggard and still under artillery fire. It was no time for a speech but he left the jeep, walked a few feet and flicked his cigar ashes on the far bank of what remained of Wesel, Germany. Symbolic of course, but it thrilled hundreds of us to see him there risking his life just like President Bush did when being flown into a dangerous airport in Baghdad. You have to experience it to feel the thrill of it. General Patton made a point of being seen with his dog and stars on flags adorning his vehicle. It gave troops a tremendous lift. The average G.I. in combat rarely sees rank that high, but I did see a full bird colonel on a stretcher with an arm missing. I saluted anyway.

If there are still those who actually believe Bush’s flight to Iraq was merely a photo-op, or a cheap political stunt, they should immediately see a doctor, unless they are Democrats. This was a 17-hour flight half way around the planet with a landing at an airport that had witnessed a plane shot down only six days before… all that for a three-hour visit with the troops? Air Force One is one huge target. And if I have my figures right it’s another 17 hours back to Washington. I’ll bet the President thought it was well worth it just to see and hear the reaction he got to his improbable dropping by for a chat.

Robert Pocklington is a resident of Suffolk and a regular News-Herald columnist. He can be contacted via e-mail at robert.pocklington@suffolknewsherald.com