ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE — President Bush has met hundreds of families of fallen soldiers, but he has yet to attend a servicemember’s funeral, he said Tuesday.
“Because which funeral do you go to? In my judgment, I think if I go to one I should go to all. How do you honor one person but not another?” he said.
The appropriate way to express his appreciation to the family members of fallen troops is to meet with them in private, he said.
In an exclusive interview, Bush sat down with Stars and Stripes to answer questions solicited from U.S. troops now downrange, including the one asking whether he had ever attended a slain soldier’s funeral.
One soldier now serving in Iraq asked how many times he would have to return to the war zone in the next five years. Bush said he did not have an answer.
“The conditions on the ground will determine our troop levels, and one of the main conditions on the ground is the capacity for the Iraqis to take the fight to the enemy, and therefore it is very difficult for me to predict with certainty how many times this particular person would be sent back to Iraq,” Bush said.
Another soldier asked if Army rotations in Iraq could be shortened from one year to six months.
“In asking that question through the chain of command, the response I get is that it’s important to manage the Army flows in such a way that we can sustain our efforts, and they believe — they being the planners in the Army itself — the best way to do it is for a year. And therefore … my answer to the troop is that really depends on what the leadership recommends.”
Last month, the Army secretary, Francis Harvey, said the Army is working toward shortening the combat tours to perhaps six or nine months, but nothing had been settled.
Bush was asked if he was planning any special benefits for U.S. troops who had served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he had already worked to increase military benefits but he had nothing specific in mind for troops who had deployed many times.
“I will work with Congress if people bring up good ideas,” he said.
The questions came from soldiers at FOB O’Ryan, home of D Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Regiment, of the 4th Infantry Division of Fort Carson, Colo.
In a question from Stripes, Bush was asked if a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would be acceptable in return for a cease-fire by insurgents.
Bush called the question hypothetical and deferred comment to Gen. George Casey, commander of Multinational Force-Iraq.
Media outlets have reported that Sunni insurgents have offered such a trade-off. Bush said, however, “I’m not sure they have or haven’t. … I will tell you that whatever decisions I make will be made upon the recommendations of commanders and and with one thing in my mind: Can we win?”
Bush was also asked if the strategy of putting relatively few U.S. troops in Afghanistan had backfired, given the resurgent Taliban.
“The strategy all along was to help internationalize the effort, and NATO troops are now moving into where the Taliban thinks that they may be able to make a foothold, or gain a foothold. … We, the United States, have got some quick-strike teams capable of moving, got some good air power in support of the NATO troops, and I compliment the Brits and the Canadians and the Dutch for taking the lead in a tough area,” Bush said.