NEW YORK – President Bush wistfully saluted the nation's veterans Tuesday as he prepares to hand two ongoing wars over to his successor, saying he'll "miss being the commander in chief of such a fabulous group."
Bush marked his last Veterans Day as president at a New York pier, speaking to a crowd of thousands bundled against the windy November chill for the rededication ceremony of the USS Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum.
The president praised veterans in the crowd, including those who served aboard the Intrepid in its long history of military action.
"Today we send a clear message to all who have worn the uniform: Thank you for your courage, thank you for your sacrifice, and thank you for standing up when your nation needed you most," said Bush, who will soon turn over to President-elect Barack Obama the responsibility for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama has pledged to remove troops from Iraq and increase troops in Afghanistan.
With a little more than two months until he leaves office, the president teased lawmakers in attendance about the upcoming lame-duck legislative session, and joked that one thing he won't miss as president is New York City traffic jams.
Then he grew serious.
"I will miss being the commander in chief of such a fabulous group of men and women, those who wear the uniform of the United States military," Bush said.
Closer to the White House, Vice President Dick Cheney marked Veterans Day by solemnly placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. Cheney then offered a glowing tribute to the U.S. armed forces: "No single military power in history has done greater good, shown greater courage, liberated more people, or upheld higher standards of decency and valor."
The president spoke in the shadow of the Intrepid and near the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan, where sailors and marines peered down on the ceremony from the ship's deck. Astronauts Scott Carpenter and Buzz Aldrin helped the president toss a wreath into the Hudson River as a bugler played "Taps."
Finally, it was time for the ceremonial breaking of a champagne bottle against the hull — only the bottle didn't break.
That wasn't the only off moment.
When Bush's helicopter landed on the deck, an exhibit helicopter came loose. Buffeted by the wash of Marine One's blades, the tail of the retired Sea Cobra helicopter slid into another museum plane, a Skynight. Neither appeared damaged.
Before the speech, Bush told reporters that one veteran in particular — his father, a World War II pilot — had inspired him and helped him "appreciate the commitment to our country that the veterans have made." Bush himself served in the National Guard during the Vietnam war era.
While in New York, the president also met privately with families of fallen military personnel.
The Intrepid returned last month to the pier where it has served for 24 years as a military and space museum, a perennially popular tourist site in New York City. In late 2006, the carrier was moved for extensive repairs and improvements costing nearly $120 million.
Launched in 1943 as one of the Navy's then-new Essex-class attack carriers, the USS Intrepid figured in six major Pacific theater campaigns including Leyte Gulf, the war's greatest naval battle. It survived five Japanese kamikaze planes and a torpedo but lost 270 crew members in combat.
After World War II, the Intrepid saw service in the Korean and Vietnam wars and was twice a recovery ship for NASA astronauts. Then it was decommissioned and mothballed in a Philadelphia shipyard and slated for demolition until rescued by New York real estate developer and philanthropist Zachary Fisher.