I believe in the fearless hearts of the U.S. military

Associated Press

and The Boston Globe

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – President Bush, visiting with troops before Thanksgiving, told cheering soldiers Wednesday the war in Afghanistan is going well but “the most difficult steps in this mission still lie ahead.” He said it will take time to find terrorists in caves and deal with fanatics who want to fight to the death.

Bush traveled to Fort Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne Division, for a turkey and macaroni meal with 150 troops in the base mess hall. Clad in a brown flight jacket, Bush also gave an update on the military campaign in Afghanistan to a crowd of 15,000 soldiers in camouflage fatigues and red, green or black berets.

“We cannot know every turn this war will take, but I’m confident of the outcome,” Bush said. “I believe in the strong resolve of the American people. I believe good triumphs over evil. And I believe in the fearless hearts of the United States military.”

The president pledged to persevere against the al-Qaida network, suspected of orchestrating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the Taliban government, which has sheltered bin Laden’s followers.

So far, Bush said, 27 of 30 Afghan provinces have been taken from Taliban control.

But that is just a start, he cautioned; U.S. forces have yet to approach Afghanistan’s rugged mountains, where Taliban fighters can hunker down in caves.

“These hideouts are heavily fortified and defended by fanatics who will fight to the death,” Bush said. “Unlike efforts to liberate a town or destroy Taliban equipment, success against these cells may come more slowly.

“The enemy hopes they can hide until we tire. But we’re going to prove them wrong. We will never tire and we will hunt them down.”

His speech drew whoops and raised fists from the crowd, made up of the 101st, a rapid-deployment air assault division; the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment; and the 5th Special Forces Group. Bush beamed as they chanted in unison, “USA!” and their rallying cry, “Air assault!” Black Hawk helicopters buzzed the field.

Before the rally, Bush and first lady Laura Bush joined soldiers for an early Thanksgiving meal. The president took a tray and joined the chow line, emerging with a plate of turkey, green beans, macaroni and, in a separate bowl, grapes.

Then, the commander in chief handed his tray to a female soldier and took her post at the carving station. He sliced away hunks of turkey breast for a few soldiers, waving the knife to keep the line moving.

Bush reclaimed his tray and, after rubbing the buzz cut on Sgt. Chris Lewis’ head, took a seat between Spc. Steven Chapman of Bismarck, Ark., and Sgt. Robert Batts of Hooks, Texas.

“I will always remember this as the day I ate turkey with the screaming eagles,” Bush told the crowd later. He thanked the troops’ families, saying, “Our nation and the world are counting on your loved ones.”

After shaking hands with a few of the soldiers, Bush and his wife left Kentucky for the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland where they will spend the holiday weekend.

Some of the troops who lined the barriers near the stage expressed great pride in their commander in chief, saying he inspired them to want to go to Afghanistan, or wherever duty called.

“I hope I do go,” said Brian Briggs, 24, a private from Lakeview, Ore. “When someone comes into my home – and I consider America my home – and destroys something, they need to pay.”

While Bush was at Fort Campbell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld traveled to Fort Bragg, N.C., home of the Army Special Operations Command, and Pope Air Force Base, N.C., on Wednesday to hold briefings and talk with troops.

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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