CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — President Clinton on Monday traveled to a military base where tragedy struck twice this year to offer a holiday tribute to the nation's defense forces and their families, saying their sacrifices for the country's security "make every day Christmas" for Americans.
"For all of America, surely there is no greater gift at Christmastime than the peace and freedom we enjoy," Clinton told 2,800 Marines and their families gathered in a field house here. "Because you are standing watch, our nation has the greatest freedom in history."
Clinton also expressed sorrow over the deaths here of 12 Marines, a Navy corpsman and an Army soldier in the collision of two helicopters in May. Months later, while many of the Marines were deployed overseas, hurricanes Fran and Bertha struck the community--toppling trees, damaging homes and automobiles and leaving much of the area without electrical power for as long as four days.
The president applauded the community for exhibiting the strength necessary to "overcome real crises." He also expressed gratitude to the families of military personnel, thanking them for the sacrifices they make. Most Marines in the hall were reunited with their families just four days ago, upon returning from a six-month deployment in the Mediterranean.
"The burden of American leadership in the world weighs heavily on the families of our men and women in uniform," Clinton said. "I thank the families here for the gifts they have given to America."
Clinton also praised the troops for maintaining America's role as "the world's indispensable nation" in a rapidly changing world, and made special mention of the role American military personnel have played in enforcing U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf, Haiti, Bosnia and off the Taiwan Strait.
"In the Persian Gulf, America's men and women in uniform tightened the straight-jacket around a dangerous tyrant, and off the Taiwan Straits, they calmed a rising storm," Clinton said. He was referring to the U.S. military's show of force last winter as mainland China was conducting military exercises and missile tests intended to send a strong signal to Taiwan in the weeks leading up to its first direct presidential election.
The two Marine pilots who survived the helicopter collision said Clinton's visit and the holiday season were especially meaningful.
"Seven months ago, I didn't think we would be here for this Christmas," said Capt. Walter Kulakowski, 34, whose 7-year-old son was on his lap. "I really didn't expect to get out of the crash alive. It's fantastic.
"We're going to do our job anyway," he said, "but it's great to be noticed."
Maj. Chuck Johnson, the other surviving pilot, said of Clinton's visit: "It's interesting for all the Marines to get to see him. He's our commander-in-chief, after all."
Johnson, 34, was in critical condition after the crash and was hospitalized three months. He has lost all memory of two days before the crash and 3 1/2 weeks after it. But he has recently started flying civilian airplanes and is determined to fly again for the Marines.
Clinton's words about sacrifices made by families of military personnel were particularly poignant for Johnson's mother, Teta Johnson, 54. She and her husband, a retired Marine, traveled from Ft. Wayne, Ind., to be with Chuck and another son, Christian, who plans to join his older brother at Camp Lejeune in January as an infantry officer.
"You do swell with pride for what they're doing, but you always have an underlying fear," Teta Johnson said. "Last May, my deepest fears almost came true."
But on Monday, she was beaming as she stood behind her son and talked of his recovery. "He's a walking miracle," she said. "We count our blessings every day."
Earlier in the day, Clinton sent e-mail to Col. Emerson Gardner, commander of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which was pulling into Trieste, Italy.
Clinton's message read: "Thank you and all your troops for your service to our country. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you."
The president was accompanied on the trip by some of the military's top brass, including Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak, and Veterans Affairs Secretary Jesse Brown.