President travels to upstate New York to speak with troops who fought in Afghanistan

Friday, July 19th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

FORT DRUM, N.Y. (AP) _ President Bush brought a message to U.S. troops who fought in Afghanistan: the nation will not abandon its commitment to the anti-terror war.

Bush also was using his appearance Friday before thousands of soldiers from the Army's 10th Mountain Division in Fort Drum, N.Y., to prod Congress to quickly approve his huge proposed boost in U.S. defense spending _ including a pay raise for troops.

Ari Fleischer, Bush's press secretary, told reporters aboard Air Force One that the president would urge the Senate to pass the defense spending measure before lawmakers head home for their August recess, and not wait until the fall.

As he stepped off his plane, Bush was greeted by New York Gov. George Pataki.

``I've submitted a mighty hefty increase in our defense spending,'' Bush said Thursday during a visit to Michigan with Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski. ``I did so because any time an American president commits one of our troops into battle or into harm's way, that person deserves the best training, the best pay, the best equipment possible.''

The soldiers and brass at the non-mountainous base of the 10th Mountain Division were treating their commander in chief to a special 20-minute demonstration of military exercises. Afterward, Bush planned a half-hour visit behind closed doors with military personnel and their families.

Troops from Fort Drum were among the first Army units to be deployed after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. Initially, they were sent to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland to protect sensitive research and storage facilities.

In October, they were deployed overseas to provide security for operations in Kuwait and Uzbekistan and then to the front lines at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan.

Infantry soldiers from Fort Drum also took part in Operation Anaconda and helped clear the caves and bunkers in the Shah-e-Kot valley after the offensive thrust was completed.

Most were back home by the end of April.

The 10th Mountain, a light infantry, rapid deployment force, was the Army's most frequently deployed division in the 1990s. Thousands of Fort Drum troops now lead the peacekeeping effort in Kosovo.

``The president thinks it's important in times of war to speak directly to the men and women who wear the uniform and give them the unqualified support and gratitude of a nation,'' White House communications director Dan Bartlett said.

Bush has received little real opposition to his proposed $48 billion defense spending boost from lawmakers mindful of the president's wartime popularity.

The full House has passed a $355 billion bill detailing defense specific spending for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved its own $355.4 billion version.

The Senate bill is $11.4 billion below Bush's request, like the House version excluding a $10 billion contingency fund that Bush wanted for to spend at will on war-fighting but that lawmakers are saving for later.

Both bills also would raise military pay a minimum of 4.1 percent, increase spending on aircraft and shipbuilding and target much more money toward fighting terrorism.