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Bush thanks troops at gala event

Calls Iraq, Afghanistan 'landmark events in history of liberty'


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush expressed his gratitude to U.S. armed forces Tuesday for their efforts in defending the nation and carrying out his policies abroad.

"I want you to know how grateful I am for your service and sacrifice, and how proud I am to be your commander in chief," Bush said to what appeared to be a full house at the 20,000-seat MCI Center in the heart of the capital.

"Whether you serve in the Army, the Navy, the Air Force or Coast Guard, each of you has stepped forward to serve," he told the enthusiastic audience, composed primarily of active duty service members.

"You have risked your lives in faraway mountains and arid deserts, in perilous skies and on the high seas to defend liberty and to free those trapped by tyranny," he said.

Bush's remarks capped an elaborate two-hour, star-packed production attended by Vice President Dick Cheney; President Bush's parents, former President George H.W. and Barbara Bush; several members of Congress; members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

The president singled out Rumsfeld, who was seated with his wife, for praise by saying, "Thank you for your great service to our nation."

The event was beamed via closed-circuit television to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and hosted by actor Kelsey Grammer.

"What they're doing here is to say thank goodness for your service," Bush told the appreciative crowd.

He called the overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the recent elections in Afghanistan "landmark events in the history of liberty."

"None of it would have been possible without the courage and the determination of the United States armed forces," Bush said.

"Through your service and sacrifice in the war on terror, you're making America safer."

But Bush said more will be asked of the armed forces in fighting terrorists.

"These enemies must be stopped, and you are the ones who'll stop them," he said to applause.

Also performing were "Saturday Night Live's" Darrell Hammond, who took advantage of his position on stage to issue a personal plea.

"Not many Americans get a chance like this, so I'm just going to go for it," he said, directing his gaze to the president.

"Mr. President, isn't there anything you could do about Brad and Jennifer?" -- referring to the recent split of Hollywood couple Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.

The impersonator then offered his rendition of former President Clinton singing the Billy Ray Cyrus song, "My Achy Breaky Heart."

Hammond also offered his take on what would happen if real estate mogul and host of "The Apprentice" Donald Trump were to switch positions with Donald Rumsfeld.

start quoteThese enemies must be stopped and you are the ones who'll stop them.end quote
-- President Bush

"We're gonna turn the Iraqi election into a big pageant," said Hammond as The Donald playing Rumsfeld. "It'll be huge, as big as my hair."

The president's father was among a number of former and current service members, their relatives and some actors who recounted events of war, usually by reading letters.

Reading from a missive to his parents, the elder Bush described the day -- September 3, 1944 -- when his plane was hit by enemy fire and he bailed out.

"Dear Mother and Dad, Yesterday was a day which will long stay in my memory," he said, more than 60 years after the event. "I was on a bombing hop."

Bush described how the cockpit had filled with smoke and he ordered those in the back of the plane to get their parachutes on and bail out, but to no avail.

"My crewmen never acknowledged either transmission," he said. Bush was later rescued by a submarine; he was the only survivor from his plane.

Comedian David Letterman lightened the mood by offering his signature gentle jabs at authority in a videotaped salute to the troops.

His "Top 10 Signs your Commanding Officer is Nuts" included:

  • "Brags that he went through basic training with Cap'n Crunch.
  • Spends all his free time in a spider hole.
  • His canteen is always filled with gravy.
  • Is awarded a second Purple Heart for swallowing the first Purple Heart.
  • Everything comes to a halt when Oprah's on."

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