First Lady Offers Thanks, Encouragement at Italy Base

 By Donna Miles
 American Forces Press Service

 WASHINGTON, Feb. 10, 2006  - First lady Laura Bush thanked U.S. airmen at Aviano Air Base, Italy, today for their sacrifices as they and their fellow servicemembers defend the United States and help bring peace and stability to the world.

Stopping at Aviano on her way to Turin as leader of the U.S. delegation to the 2006 Olympic Games, Bush and several former Olympians traveling with her told the airmen they're America's true heroes.

"These athletes make America proud," she said this year's U.S. Olympians and the former Olympians who joined her, including speed skater Eric Heiden, skaters Dorothy Hamill and Debi Thomas, gymnast Kerri Strug, and bobsledder and former NFL football player Herschel Walker.

"But I want you to know that the men and women of our armed forces bring the greatest pride and honor to our country," she said.

Bush acknowledged how much the world has changed since her last visit to Aviano in July 2001, two months before the terrorist attacks on the United States. The attacks "reminded us that freedom is precious," she said. "We can never be complacent, as long as there are people who hate freedom and glorify justice."

The first lady praised the 31st Fighter Wing airmen and soldiers from the Army's Southern European Task Force in nearby Vicenza for the contributions they've made to the global war on terror. "Throughout the challenges of the last four years, you've served with courage and distinction," she said.

While in Aviano, Bush visited three 31st Fighter Wing units just back from Iraq. "They engaged the enemy there, they delivered vital supplies and they provided air support for troops on the ground - all to advance the cause of freedom," she said.

Other servicemembers from Aviano and Vicenza recently returned from their deployment to Afghanistan supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, Bush noted. In addition to training the Afghan National Guard, they supported humanitarian crises following Afghanistan's floods and Pakistan's earthquake.

Meanwhile, forces from Aviano continue to service in the Balkans, where they support efforts to maintain peace and stability, she said.

These efforts help people around the world "see the true heart of America," the first lady said.

As it faces the challenges ahead, the U.S. will continue to rely on its military men and women, whom Bush acknowledged have a tough job to carry out.

"Many of you have faced long deployments, sometimes far longer than expected," she said. "Many of you enlisted at a time of peace and now find yourselves serving in a time of war. You miss your family and you worry about then, and your families miss and worry about you."

And some have lost friends and comrades in arms they'll never forget. "America will never forget them, either," she said.

Bush praised the courage and resiliency of military families who support their loved ones as they carry out their mission. "You make countless sacrifices to help your loved one fulfill their duty. You deal with the burdens of raising families on your own, and you worry about your husband or wife, or your mom or dad, far from home," she said. "We'll never forget your commitment and the dedication you have to your loved ones."

The first lady said she's hopeful the support of the American people will bring comfort and strength to military members and their families. "Through the difficult days, I hope you'll draw strength from the knowledge that America honors your service and your sacrifice," she said.

"We pray for your safety and swift return. We pray for your families," the first lady said. "And we pray for an end to violence everywhere, so that future generations will grow up in a world at peace - a world you have shaped."