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Bush comforts grieving families of fallen Marines

©Associated Press
April 4, 2003

[AP photo]
President Bush holds Robert Martin Markee Jr., 8, after speaking to Marines and their families at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- At a military base hard hit by combat deaths, President Bush shed tears Thursday with relatives of Marines killed in Iraq and told one man's family, "He's in heaven."

Bush and his wife, Laura, met in a chapel annex with about 20 family members of five Camp Lejeune-based Marines killed in Iraq. The base has lost more troops in Iraq -- at least 13 killed -- than any other military installation. Six more are missing.

Among the grieving families were several small children who lost their fathers, including 6-week-old twin girls and a 2-week-old baby. Some relatives wore lapel pictures of their lost Marine. The meeting was private, but a senior White House official described it afterward. The names of the families were withheld.

"He loved being a Marine," Bush was told.

"He loved his country."

"He was proud to serve."

A teary-eyed Bush assured the families, "The world will be more peaceful," and "I'm proud of you."

"He cried with us," said Ginger Ford, whose brother, Marine Lance Cpl. Patrick Nixon, 21, died in a March 23 ambush. "He assured us that my brother was very important and he would not be forgotten."

It was Bush's first meeting with relatives of slain troops since the war began two weeks ago.

Bush talked with the families after a speech to troops and a mess hall lunch. Some 12,000 camouflage-clad Marines and 8,000 more family members and friends spilled out from a temporary stadium into a green field named in honor of Marines who have died. The field was ringed with tanks, allowing several Marines to climb higher for a better view.

Bush said the array of troops was a fine sight unless, he joked, "you happen to be a member of the Iraqi Republican Guard."

As he spoke under a cloudless North Carolina sky, allied forces half a world away were fighting on the outskirts of Baghdad.

"A vise is closing," Bush said, "and the days of a brutal regime are coming to an end."

Some military commanders have sought to lower expectations about a quick takeover of the Iraqi capital and a collapse of Saddam Hussein's government. Bush foresaw a clear finish, whatever the timetable.

"Having traveled hundreds of miles, we will now go the last 200 yards," he said. "The course is set. We're on the advance. Our destination is Baghdad. And we will accept nothing less than complete and final victory."

Aides said the phrase "the last 200 yards" has special meaning for Marines, symbolizing the belief that the hardest part of a difficult journey often comes at the finish.

His remarks were greeted by repeated, deafening roars of approval, none louder than when he ended his speech with "Semper Fi" -- an abbreviation of the Marine Corps' "ever faithful" motto.

"There's a tradition in the Corps that no one who falls will be left behind in the battlefield," Bush said. "Our country has a tradition as well. No one who falls will be forgotten by this grateful nation."

In selecting this base in the Carolina coastal pines, Bush picked the hardest-hit branch of the military. More than two-thirds of the Americans killed in Iraq are Marines.

Some in the audience had hoped for more specific information about the war's timeline than Bush's pronouncement that "what we have begun, we will finish."

Nineteen-year-old Nikki Sweet, whose husband, Lance Cpl. Justin Sweet, has been away for six months, came from St. Petersburg with friends but didn't hear what she wanted.

"I just want him to come home. That's all I want," she said of her husband. "I just hope it's not much longer."

Lance Cpl. Clark Moiles listened intently, longing to join the troops overseas. "I wish I could be there. I don't feel like I'm really doing my job."

-- Information from the Dallas Morning News was used in this report.

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