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Gag order leaves troops, reporters speechless

Rocky Mountain News

COLORADO SPRINGS - Before the press was herded into the giant hangar in advance of George W. Bush's pep rally/photo op with the Fort Carson troops, we were given the rules.

No talking to the troops before the rally.

No talking to the troops during the rally.

No talking to the troops after the rally.

In other words, if I've done the math right, that means no conversation at all - at least, while on base - with any soldiers. After all, who knows where that kind of thing could lead?

Just as an example: It could lead to a discussion about why the president has time to get to so many fund-raisers and no time to attend a single funeral of a soldier killed in Iraq.

There could have been debate, and we all know the risks in debate, as to whether it's really the families' privacy that is being guarded by the rule against photos of coffins as they arrive from Iraq. Or whether it's the president's standing - the latest Gallup Poll showed 54 percent disapproved of his handling of Iraq - that is being guarded from what one general once called "the Dover test."

Or somebody might have wanted to reminisce about Cpl. Gary B. Coleman, 24, of Pikeville, Ky., giving flesh-and-blood detail to the chilling statistic that Coleman was the latest casualty from Fort Carson, a post that has now given up 31 lives to the war in Iraq. Coleman, who was on patrol when his car crashed into a canal, trapping him inside, left behind a wife he had married only weeks before shipping out.

I'd have been happy just to have asked whether any of the troops who cheered the president lustily - long "whoops" and "USA, USA" chants - thought that standing for 2 hours in a hangar waiting for the president to arrive was the best use of their time. (OK, I have to admit I cheated and snuck in one brief interview in the parking lot. A soldier excitedly told me he shook hands with the president and that he thought - and I hope this isn't too controversial - it was "way cool.")

But even here, or maybe especially here, a soldier or two might have, in conversation, questioned the need for the war in Iraq. This is not exactly a welcome notion in the White House. The Bush campaign has put up an ad in Iowa saying that certain of his opponents are "attacking the president for attacking the terrorists," as if opposing the war in Iraq is the same as opposing the war on terror.

The cameras went instead to Bush, who gave his speech standing in front of a huge American flag (think George C. Scott in the opening scene of Patton) while dressed in an olive-green Army jacket bearing a Fort Carson 7th Infantry Division insignia.

There were no "mission accomplished" signs anywhere. There were, though, maybe 6,000 troops, mainly dressed in camouflage, some of them standing atop battle vehicles. It was the ideal setting for his speech.

The president praised the soldiers' sacrifice and thanked them for their help in bringing democracy to Iraq - if not necessarily to Fort Carson. He got the biggest cheer when he said democracy will come to Iraq "because the United States of America will not be intimidated by a bunch of thugs."

But there is something that apparently makes the president nervous. Although the lack of access to the troops was explained as a logistics problem - too many media members needing escorts - it couldn't have been quite the problem, say, of embedding media in Iraq.

Immediately after the speech, the president went upstairs for what was an emotional meeting with around 100 family members of the fallen soldiers. The meeting was, of course, closed to the press, as it should have been. And, I guess, it could have been a logistics problem that prevented the media from meeting with the families after they talked to the president. It could have been a privacy concern.

Or it could have been an Elaine Johnson issue.

In his speech, Bush didn't mention Elaine Johnson, whose son Darius Jennings was one of four Fort Carson soldiers on the Chinook helicopter that was shot down Nov. 2.

When Johnson was at the Fort Carson chapel a week ago for her son's memorial service, she wondered aloud why the president had visited South Carolina in the week of her son's funeral but had not bothered to attend or to send any message to her or her family.

"Evidently my son wasn't important enough to him dead for him to visit the family or call the family," she said then. "As long as my son was alive he was important, because he sent him over there to fight a war."

There was no such headline this time. All anyone saw this time was Bush's speech in a visit that was as organized as any presidential campaign stop.

In fact, the last thing anyone heard as the president left the room was some in the audience chanting, "Four more years." And no one got to ask their names.

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