September 15, 2004
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld Thanks 101st Airborne
Taking war to terrorists is noble work, defense chief says
By Leon Alligood, Staff Writer
FORT CAMPBELL - Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stood in the midday sun, facing a sea of green - thousands of men and women soldiers in uniform. He said he came to the home of the Screaming Eagles, officially known as the 101st Airborne Division, for one reason.
''I came to say thank you. We are
deeply grateful. It's noble work. It's important work. The people of the
United States are very much in your debt,'' Rumsfeld said, his words followed
by cheers and ''Hoo-ahs!''
Yesterday's meeting, open to the post and the press but closed to the public, was Rumsfeld's opportunity to meet troops and to answer a wide range of questions, from queries about deployments to quizzing the
secretary, or trying to, about the upcoming presidential election. Afterward, he shook hands and posed for photos for about a half-hour.
Rumsfeld didn't miss the opportunity to brag on the 101st. ''Your storied division has had, for a long time, a rendezvous with destiny. From Bastogne to the heat of Baghdad, and the dash across the deserts of Iraq,'' he said. ''I believe those who live another 30 or 40 years will look back, as historians will look back, and they will see a country that was wise not to wait for the terrorists to come back and hit our country, that understood the work that was being done on the global war on terror, that took the fight to the terrorists, the extremists,'' the secretary said, followed by applause.
The questions from the audience were not pre-screened. Microphones were scattered throughout the crowded parade field, and soldiers raised their hands to be recognized. A specialist asked the secretary how long the United States would be in Iraq. A sergeant asked whether the yearlong deployment rotation would be shortened. Both questions are of high concern to 101st Airborne troops, who will probably be deployed again to Iraq in the months ahead.
Rumsfeld gave lengthy replies to each question. To the first question, the secretary said he didn't know the answer. ''It is possible to say that when the United States voted to send troops to Iraq, we did it to replace a vicious regime and help put the Iraqi people back on the path to democracy. We're making good headway,'' he said. To the question about deployment length, Rumsfeld said as Iraqi forces
take over for American and coalition forces, he expected the number of U.S. soldiers ''on the ground'' to shrink, thus reducing the number of deployments and their lengths. However, he didn't have an answer for when any changes to the current 12-month deployment would take place.
One questioner, a soldier who identified himself as Mario, asked Rumsfeld to discuss the war record debate of the two presidential candidates. The question brought an eruption of cheers. ''Do not encourage Mario,'' the secretary said, adding that President Bush had told him not to get involved in political discussions. ''How in the world could I answer that question without getting into politics,'' he said with a laugh.
Most soldiers seemed to be impressed that Rumsfeld would visit the post. ''I think what he had to say was important. I think he's a pretty good guy,'' said Pfc. Charles Snyder, after collecting Rumsfeld's autograph
and shaking his hand. Even if Snyder has to go to Iraq? ''It's what I do. It's what we're trained to do. We're what stands for America,'' Snyder said.
Yesterday's visit to Fort Campbell was Rumsfeld's first since 1976. ''That was a long time ago. I shook hands with a colonel back then named Colin Powell,'' he said. ''Now he's, of course, the secretary of
state. It's always nice to see a young fellow get ahead.''
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