FORT STEWART, Ga. - President Bush came to southeast Georgia's Fort Stewart on Friday to thank the 3rd Infantry Division, the desert warfare specialists who led the ground assault on Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"You made history. You've made our nation proud and you've earned the Presidential Unit Citation," Mr. Bush said to a crowd of about 16,500 - the number of troops from the division who were deployed to Iraq for tours ranging from six to 11 months.
The 3rd roared through the Iraqi countryside in spring, punching through defenses and entering Baghdad long before many experts had expected them to.
"I know it's been a tough nine months for Fort Stewart families, but you've been loyal and patient and you've looked out for one another," Mr. Bush said.
He promised to continue the fight until it is finished in Iraq and said Secretary of State Colin Powell was headed for Switzerland for talks with other nations designed to bring international involvement in the rebuilding and peacekeeping in Iraq.
Mr. Powell was to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the foreign ministers of Russia, China, France and Britain.
No free nation can be neutral in the conflict between the civilized world and chaos, Mr. Bush said.
Of the ongoing war, he said Saddam Hussein loyalists and terrorists from other nations are trying to undermine efforts to establish peace in Iraq.
"They understand a free Iraq will be free of them, free of torturers and assassins," Mr. Bush said. "They believe America will run from a challenge. They don't know us very well ... We will win this essential war."
He predicted the terrorists will fall, just as Saddam's statue did in Baghdad.
Before his speech, Mr. Bush presented the Presidential Unit Citation to Capt. Vern Tubbs, who had written a letter to Mr. Bush from Iraq, telling him how grateful the Iraqis were at their liberation.
As Mr. Bush spoke in front of a human backdrop of soldiers in brown desert fatigues, his remarks were answered with shouts of the division's rallying cry, "Oooo-ahhh!"
Recalling his first visit to Fort Stewart in February 2001, Mr. Bush noted that was his first occasion to sound the cry himself.
As much as the soldiers appreciated the recognition of their valor, some were glad that the president mentioned their humanitarian aid work in reopening schools and hospitals and giving vaccinations.
"I think it was good to get some recognition of our guys who do such hard work," said Capt. Will Griffin, who worked in fuel distribution. "It's not something you hear very often. Our doctors and dentists spent a lot of time in the local communities."
Staff Sgt. James Richardson and Staff Sgt. John Jackson traveled near the front of the column, providing artillery air defense for the advancing mechanized infantry. Both said they appreciated Mr. Bush's remarks.
"It was a great speech. Everything he was touching on was what was going on," Staff Sgt. Jackson said.
"He said we ain't going to quit and it ain't no time to quit," Staff Sgt. Richardson said.