“I was just looking for a warm meal somewhere”: George W. Bush’s surprise first visit to American soldiers in Iraq
It was Thanksgiving in the United States, but it was November 27, 2003 near the coast of England, where the Pilgrims had set off for religious freedom centuries earlier. Darkness was not as good of a cover as the passengers on a 747 flying east had hoped. A British Airways pilot looked out his window and saw something that puzzled him. “Is that Air Force One?” wondered the pilot.
“No, it’s a Gulfstream 5,” said Colonel Mark Tillman of the United States Air Force. He was lying. It was Air Force One, and the official aircraft of the President of the United States was in the middle of one of the most secretive flights in history.
On board the plane was a skeleton crew of Secret Service agents, White House aides, a handful of reporters and photographers, the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and the President, George W. Bush. Most Americans – even members of the press and Secret Service – thought that the President was enjoying Thanksgiving dinner at his ranch near Crawford, Texas. As Thanksgiving dinner was served at Bush’s Prairie Chapel Ranch – a dinner that deputy Press Secretary Clair Buchan said would consist of “free range turkey, turkey cornbread dressing, chipotle sweet potatoes, mash potatoes, asparagus, Texas grapefruit, toasted walnuts, and green salad – that’s all one item – pumpkin pie, and Prairie Chapel pecan pie made with pecans from the President’s ranch” – the President was conspicuously absent from the dinner table. The First Lady, Laura Bush, was aware of the secret trip but Bush’s parents, former President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, had no idea why their son was missing from the dinner table.
Earlier that day, the President had slipped on a windbreaker and put on a baseball cap as he and the Secretary of State hopped into a red SUV with tinted windows. A Presidential trip into Crawford while he was staying at the ranch usually required several dozen Secret Service agents and a long motorcade. Not only was this a downsized version of that, but the agents at the gates of Bush’s ranch didn’t even realize that the President was in the vehicle as they waved it through. Bush and Rice, with just a few Secret Service agents, headed to an airstrip in Waco. On Interstate 35 during his 45-minute trip to Waco, the President even got stuck in traffic – something he hadn’t experienced since before he was elected Governor of Texas.
As Bush and Rice made their way to the airstrip in Waco, several of Bush’s aides rounded up a few members of the press, including the Washington Post’s Mike Allen, Bloomberg’s Richard Keil, and five press photographers. When Dan Bartlett (the White House Communications Director), Blake Gottesman (the President’s personal aide), and Joe Hagin (the Deputy Chief of Staff who had been in charge of planning the top secret trip) informed the reporters that Bush was going to Baghdad, they thought it was a joke. The Iraq War was only 8 months old; Saddam Hussein was still a free man. Just a week earlier, a DHL cargo plane had been hit by a surface-to-air missile after taking off from Baghdad International Airport. Now, the President was heading to that very airport in the most recognizable aircraft in the world – a plane that literally has the President’s logo on the side of it. The press was sworn to secrecy as the President’s aides told them where to meet so that they could travel together to Waco to board Air Force One.
Air Force One was nearly empty as it flew across the United States and landed at its home base, Andrews Air Force Base, outside of Washington, D.C. The plane stopped in Washington to pick up a few more journalists and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card. The journalists in Washington had all of their electronic equipment, from cameras to cell phones to pagers, confiscated so that they could not leak the news about the trip. They also were being taken to one of the most secretive places in the nation – the massive hangar at Andrews where Air Force One and its twin is kept. There are actually two 747s that are identical to one another, and the backup plane was completely fueled and ready-to-go when its twin arrived from Texas.
The engines on Air Force One were running when President Bush switched planes and the reporters caught their first glimpse of him. According to the Washington Post’s Mike Allen, the President cautioned the press about the trip’s secrecy: “The sound in the hangar was so loud that (the President) could not be heard, but he held his thumb and pinkie apart, and raised them to his ear, in the symbol of someone using a phone, and mouthed, ‘No calls, got it?' He emphasized the point by crossing his arms back and forth in front of him. He made the 'cut’ sign to his throat and mouthed again, 'No calls.’”
Ten minutes later, Air Force One was in the air and the President was asleep almost before the plane started crossing the Atlantic Ocean. En route, reporters were given bulletproof vests and helmets as the plane raced across the Atlantic. After they were spotted by the British Airways pilot, Colonel Tillman headed into the cabin to notify Hagin, the trip director, who worriedly exclaimed, “Oh shit!" As Air Force One made its way towards Iraq, Hagin waited anxiously to hear if word leaked. A duty officer in the White House Situation Room was monitoring all news outlets worldwide; if the trip leaked before they reached Iraq, Hagin was going to turn the plane right back around.
On the ground at Baghdad International Airport, a detail of U.S. Army Special Forces waited on the tarmac for what they were told was the impending arrival of a "VIP”. They were not there for ceremonial reasons; merely protective ones. Baghdad International was a dangerous place and insurgents and terrorists needed no special reason to attempt to blow a plane out of the sky. The Special Forces soldiers hoped that the plane would land safely and they could get their “VIP” to the Green Zone as quickly and safely as possible.
Around 5:00 AM, Baghdad time, the lights inside of Air Force One were turned off and all of the shades on the plane’s windows were drawn. Colonel Tillman monitored Air Force One’s top-secret safety features – hoping not to use the evasive maneuvers and missile redirection flares that the plane is rumored to have. As the President’s plane touched down in Baghdad, the Special Forces soldiers on the tarmac were stunned – their VIP was the POTUS.
The President never left the airport. After riding to a mess hall with General Rick Sanchez, Bush entered the building through a back door and was greeted by the administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer who, somewhat prematurely, said “Welcome to free Iraq, Mr. President”, as Bush wrapped him in a big bear hug. Bush changed into a First Armored Division windbreaker, which was the division that was awaiting a USO show and Thanksgiving dinner inside the mess hall. General Sanchez greeted the soldiers and asked Bremer to read the President’s traditional Thanksgiving declaration prior to serving food.
Bremer stepped to the microphone in the mess hall in front of approximately 600 American soldiers and said, “Thank you, General. But by tradition, the most senior U.S. government representative present should read it. Is there a representative more senior than me in the room?”
At this point, the soldiers began to stir. Around the mess hall were some unfamiliar faces – civilian security wearing the same camouflage uniforms as the soldiers, but people that the soldiers had not previously recognized. After Bremer asked if there was someone above his rank in the building, President Bush walked on to the stage and the soldiers erupted in cheers. Bush’s eyes were filled with tears, as were those of his aides and many of the soldiers. Soldiers who were present later said that the building was actually shaking due to the roar of the crowd, and the cheering continued for several minutes.
The tearful President took in the cheers before saying, “I was just looking for a warm meal somewhere."
Thank you for inviting me to dinner. General Sanchez, thank you, sir, for your kind invitation and your strong leadership. Ambassador Bremer, thank you for your steadfast belief in freedom and peace. I want to thank the members of the Governing Council who are here, pleased you are joining us on our nation’s great holiday, it’s a chance to give thanks to the Almighty for the many blessings we receive.
I’m particularly proud to be with the First Armored Division, the Second ACR, the 82nd Airborne. I can’t think of a finer group of folks to have Thanksgiving dinner with than you all. We’re proud of you. Today, Americans are gathering with their loved ones to give thanks for the many blessings in our lives. And this year we are especially thankful for the courage and the sacrifice of those who defend us, the men and women of the United States military.
I bring a message on behalf of America: We thank you for your service, we’re proud of you, and America stands solidly behind you. Together, you and I have taken an oath to defend our country. You’re honoring that oath. The United States military is doing a fantastic job. You are defeating the terrorists here in Iraq, so that we don’t have to face them in our own country. You’re defeating Saddam’s henchmen, so that the people of Iraq can live in peace and freedom.
By helping the Iraqi people become free, you’re helping change a troubled and violent part of the world. By helping to build a peaceful and democratic country in the heart of the Middle East, you are defending the American people from danger and we are grateful.
You’re engaged in a difficult mission. Those who attack our coalition forces and kill innocent Iraqis are testing our will. They hope we will run. We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq, pay a bitter cost in casualties, defeat a brutal dictator and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins.
We will prevail. We will win because our cause is just. We will win because we will stay on the offensive. And we will win because you’re part of the finest military ever assembled. And we will prevail because the Iraqis want their freedom.
Every day you see firsthand the commitment to sacrifice that the Iraqi people are making to secure their own freedom. I have a message for the Iraqi people: You have an opportunity to seize the moment and rebuild your great country, based on human dignity and freedom. The regime of Saddam Hussein is gone forever.
The United States and our coalition will help you, help you build a peaceful country so that your children can have a bright future. We’ll help you find and bring to justice the people who terrorized you for years and are still killing innocent Iraqis. We will stay until the job is done. I’m confident we will succeed, because you, the Iraqi people, will show the world that you’re not only courageous, but that you can govern yourself wisely and justly.
On this Thanksgiving, our nation remembers the men and women of our military, your friends and comrades who paid the ultimate price for our security and freedom. We ask for God’s blessings on their families, their loved ones and their friends, and we pray for your safety and your strength, as you continue to defend America and to spread freedom. Each one of you has answered a great call, participating in an historic moment in world history. You live by a code of honor, of service to your nation, with the safety and the security of your fellow citizens. Our military is full of the finest people on the face of the earth. I’m proud to be your commander in chief. I bring greetings from America. May God bless you all.
After his speech, President Bush was directed towards a table where he was supposed to eat with a few selected member of the Armed Forces. Instead, the President called an audible. "I want to serve these guys,” the President said. As he plunged into the crowd of American forces, Bush shook hands and took pictures with every soldier who requested one. He served the soldiers their dinner. For over 90 minutes, Bush visited with the men who he had sent into war. Bush didn’t even eat dinner.
The President was on the ground for just two-and-a-half hours. Following his meeting with the troops, Bush met privately with several leaders from the Iraqi Governing Council. The President boarded Air Force One, exhilarated from his visit with the troops, and headed back to Washington after less than three hours in Iraq. Reporters were finally allowed to contact the rest of the world and tell the story of the trip after the plane lifted off from Baghdad.
No matter what your political beliefs are, this was a courageous and morale-boosting trip by the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Military to the troops that he had sent into battle. Sixteen days after Bush’s visit, Saddam Hussein was captured by American forces. President Bush would visit Iraq three more times, including an emotional farewell visit in December 2008, one month before he left office.