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Bush Pays Tribute To Troops

After signing a massive defense-spending bill in Washington, President Bush traveled to a hard-hit military base Monday where he paid tribute to the sacrifices of U.S. troops in Iraq.

"You bring great pride to the people of the United States of America," he told hundreds of soldiers and relatives assembled in an aircraft hangar at Fort Carson, Colo.

Twenty-eight soldiers from Fort Carson have died in Iraq since Mr Bush declared major combat in Iraa over on May 1.

Wearing a green Army field jacket, the president told this base, from which some 12,000 troops have been deployed to Iraq, that victory there will make America more secure, reports CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller.

The war in Iraq is making America safer "from terrorists who hate what we stand for," he said.

The soldiers and their families are sacrificing for "democracy, tolerance, and the rights and dignity of every people," Mr. Bush said, adding, "The United States of America will not be intimidated by a bunch of thugs."

Mr. Bush stopped at the military base en route to a weeklong stay at his Texas ranch. Before his speech, he went through a cafeteria line at the mess hall, picking fried chicken and corn on the cob, and sat down with about 100 soldiers.

Earlier Monday, the president signed a $401.3 billion defense authorization bill and said, "America's military is standing between our country and grave danger."

Fort Carson has lost 28 soldiers in Iraq. Mr. Bush was meeting privately with nearly 100 relatives of the victims. Four of the victims were among the 16 soldiers killed Nov. 2 when a helicopter was shot down in the dangerous Sunni Triangle near Fallujah, Iraq. Fort Carson has sent 12,000 troops to Iraq, its largest deployment since World War II.

At the bill-signing ceremony at the Pentagon earlier in the day, Mr. Bush said U.S. forces are facing "a great and historic task" to confront and defeat terrorists.

"The stakes for our country could not be higher," the president said. "We face enemies that measure their progress by the chaos they inflict, the fear they spread and the innocent lives they destroy."

The U.S. military toll rose Sunday when two U.S. soldiers were killed, then pummeled with concrete blocks, and a soldier traveling in a convoy was killed by a roadside bomb. In Afghanistan, five soldiers were killed Sunday in the crash of a transport helicopter near the main U.S. base.

U.S. policies in Iraq could be a major political vulnerability for the president in the 2004 election season.

Families at Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, generally have supported the war effort, but there have been voices of concern.

Harriet Johnson of Cordova, S.C., the mother of Spc. Darius T. Jennings, one of the four Fort Carson soldiers who died in the crash of the CH-47 Chinook helicopter, said she was upset that Mr. Bush did not stop to speak with her family when he was in South Carolina earlier this month.

"I understand he may not be able to talk to each one of them direct," she said. "He was in my hometown. Something should have been said."

On the other hand, the stepfather of Marine Lance Cpl. Thomas Slocum, who was killed in Iraq on March 23, said he believes Mr. Bush takes responsibility for the U.S. casualties, which have topped 400. "If President Bush were go to every family, it would take too much of his time, and if he sees one, he has to see them all," said Stan Cooper of Thornton, Colo.

Among other things, the defense bill before him at the Pentagon:

  • Raises salaries for soldiers by an average of 4.15 percent, and extends increases in combat and family separation pay.
  • Calls for the Air Force to lease 20 Boeing 767 planes as in-flight refueling tankers and buy 80 more.
  • Partially overturns rules preventing disabled veterans from receiving some retirement pay as well as disability compensation.
  • Grants Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld increased control over 700,000 civilian employees. Pentagon officials said restrictions on hiring, firing and promoting employees forced them to use military personnel for jobs better suited for civilians. Democrats said the bill goes too far in stripping overtime guarantees and job protection rules.
  • Lifts a decade-old ban on research into low-yield nuclear weapons and authorizes $15 million for continued research into a powerful nuclear weapon capable of destroying deep underground bunkers.
  • Exempts the military to provisions of the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Pentagon claimed environmental laws restrict training exercises; environmentalists said the laws have had little effect on training and that the exemptions go too far.

    The president ends the day at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he will observe Thanksgiving with family members.

    On Tuesday, he makes a day trip to Las Vegas for a campaign fund-raiser and a speech on Medicare at Spring Valley Hospital, followed by similar appearances in Phoenix.

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