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Obama victory lap marks critical military moment for the president

May 06, 2011|By Christi Parsons
(Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images )

Reporting from Fort Campbell, Ky. — In a private meeting carefully shielded from public view, President Obama was set to meet Friday with military participants in the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound, thanking them for carrying out the operation that will stand for many as his single most memorable achievement in office.

Although Fort Campbell is home to the only air assault division in the military, the White House would not say if Obama was meeting specifically with pilots of the helicopters that brought the Navy SEALs in for the raid, or if the SEALs themselves flew to Kentucky for the event.

Photos: The death of Osama bin Laden

The secrecy surrounding the day's events showed the president in the challenging role he has played all week, as he publicly savors the success of the Bin Laden operation while trying mightily not to cross the line into exploiting it.

Obama kept his visit with survivors and victims of the 9/11 attacks private when he went to ground zero in New York on Thursday, for instance, and said in a "60 Minutes" interview that he didn’t want to “spike the football” in celebration over the event. In a Friday visit to a plant in Indianapolis, Obama moderated the day’s rhetoric by talking exclusively about economic issues.

Still, accepting credit for Bin Laden's long-awaited capture is important to the Obama White House, and his victory lap through the home of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment marked an important moment for the Democratic president.

Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were scheduled to meet privately with members of the team that carried out the mission, before joining a large crowd gathered in a gymnasium. Soldiers at the base recently came home from a one-year deployment to Afghanistan, according to base officials.

At times, military receptions for Obama have been tepid, with members of the military establishment expressing skepticism that the Democrat could be as deeply committed to the defense infrastructure as any conservative.

Indeed, as troops waited for Obama's arrival, one sergeant said before the president’s arrival that it was “about time” the commander-in-chief found his way to the military base.

“He should have been here before,” said Tami Curtis, a truck driver in the 101st Airborne sustainment division. “We’re his soldiers. He needed to come to show that he supports us.”

Others said they welcomed Obama’s visit in this particular week, just days after pilots like their own carried out the Bin Laden mission.

“This is monumental to me,” said Kingston McCaden, a staff sergeant in the transportation battalion. “He’s rallying the troops, like in the old days, coming to see us and the Night Stalkers like the ones who flew in to do the job. I feel really deeply proud."

Six American presidents have visited the base, and President Bush visited the base at Fort Campbell three times while he was president -- including during the period when Gen. David Petraeus was commanding officer.

Known in the military as the “Night Stalkers,” members of the 160th regiment pioneered night-flight techniques in the early 1980s, according to base officials. The regiment's earliest mission was in Grenada in 1983, and the unit has since participated in missions in Panama and Kuwait as well as operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

cparsons@tribune.com

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