President Barack Obama addressed a cheering hangar full of airmen and soldiers during a brief stopover in Anchorage on Thursday, vowing to look after the men and women who serve their country while in uniform and after they return to civilian life.
"I want you guys to understand I will never hesitate to use force to protect the American people or our vital interests," Obama said in an address that lasted just under 15 minutes.
"But I also make you this promise: I will not risk your lives unless it is necessary to America's vital interests. And if it is necessary, the United States of America will have your back. We'll give you the strategy and the clear mission you deserve, we'll give you the equipment and support that you need to get the job done, and that includes public support back home."
Recognizing Alaska Sen. Mark Begich's work on military and veterans issues in the Senate, Obama said the Veterans Affairs budget is undergoing its largest percentage increase in more than 30 years.
"You've always taken care of America," Obama told the troops, "and America has to take care of you back."
The president's brief Alaska refueling stop broke up a long trip to Asia. His next destination was Japan.
If Obama has a Winnebago parked in the White House garage with an outline map of the United States, he can now color in the remaining empty space -- this was the first visit to Alaska of the Hawaii-born president, the last of the 50 states he had not visited. He told Native leaders in a meeting in Washington, D.C., last week that he hoped to spend more time here in the summer.
The president's plane touched down at Elmendorf Air Force Base at 12:52 p.m.
"Heavy snow on ground" read the media pool report filed after his arrival by a White House reporter. An Alaskan would've said it was maybe an inch or two.
Hangar 1 was already filled to capacity -- several thousand military personnel and their families, along with perhaps a couple hundred civilians who scored the hard-to-get tickets.
Begich got 10 to distribute. Former State Rep. Ethan Berkowitz got two tickets from the man who beat him in November, Rep. Don Young, who didn't return to Alaska and had no use for them himself. Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan was spotted in the crowd.
But Gov. Sean Parnell was absent, giving a speech instead to a contractors meeting in Anchorage. Though Obama recognized Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, Campbell was far away, speaking to the Alaska Law Enforcement Training Program graduation in Sitka. Sen. Lisa Murkowski was on a trip to northwest Alaska.
While waiting for Obama to arrive, the crowd in the hangar was entertained by the Air Force Band of the Pacific, which played note-perfect covers of jazz standards from the '30s, then launched into some slightly edgier music from the '80s.
Staff Sgt. Terrence Lewis of the 109th Transportation Company at Fort Richardson was among those waiting. From where he stood, the empty stage for Obama was less than 100 feet away.
"It's a little exciting. First time I've ever been this close to the president."
His friend, Sgt. Victor Robinson, also of the 109th, said, "It's always good when the commander in chief makes a stop and talks to the soldiers."
2nd Lt. Allison Gould of the 17th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, also at Fort Richardson, saw President Bush once, but from a long way off. "This is so much closer. It's like good tickets."
Her friend, 1st Lt. Jennifer Garigliano, also of the 17th CSSB, said each unit was given a number of tickets, and those who wanted to go had to ask. She was happy to. "It's not every day you get to see the president," she said.
The walls of the huge hangar were draped in cloth and the place was spotless. An F-15 was parked in the corner, a reminder of Elmendorf's role in guarding the northern and western approaches to the United States.
When Obama walked into the room, hundreds of cameras were lifted in the air by the military personnel hoping to capture the moment.
Obama's speech was largely a tribute to the armed forces, with two references to the recent killings at Fort Hood by an Army psychiatrist. He didn't address the larger issues he's currently confronting -- the long-awaited decision on how to proceed in Afghanistan and the politics of health care among them.
He mentioned three casualties from the war in Afghanistan by name: Staff Sgt. Timothy Bowles, 24, an Elmendorf airman from Tucson, Ariz., killed on March 15; Spec. Julian Berisford, 25, of Benwood, W. Va., a member of Fort Richardson's 4th Brigade Combat Team, killed on patrol Nov. 4; and Marine Cpl. Gregory Fleury, 23, a Service High graduate killed Oct. 26 in the province of Helmand when two helicopters collided.
"There are no words that are strong enough and no tribute worthy enough to match the magnitude of such service," Obama said. "But to you and all who serve, I say this: The American people thank you. We honor you. And just as you have fulfilled your responsibilities to your nation, your nation will fulfill its responsibilities to you."
After he spoke, he shook hands among the crowd, then left to board Air Force One for Tokyo.
Find Richard Mauer online at adn.com/contact/rmauer or call 257-4345.