What a difference a year can make. At this time last year, soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division were among the first to move across the Iraq-Kuwait border as the United States embarked on the serious mission of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

A year later, President Bush was at Fort Campbell, Ky., to thank the soldiers for a job well done and to welcome them home on a sunny parade field with a military band playing, flags waving and soldiers smiling.

"All who serve at Fort Campbell and all who wear the uniform of the United States are serving at a crucial hour in the history of freedom," Bush told the troops March 18. "In the first war of the 21st century, you're defending your fellow citizens against ruthless enemies, and by your sacrifice, you're making our country more secure. You have delivered justice to many terrorists, and you’re keeping the rest of them on the run."

Fort Campbell is home to the third largest military population in the Army, and 20,000 of its soldiers were deployed to Iraq beginning in February 2003. The soldiers began returning to the post in January.

In the weeks following Sept. 11, Fort Campbell was the first Army post the president visited. Anticipating their role in the war on terror, Bush told the troops they had a rendezvous with destiny.

"And when the orders came, you carried out your missions," Bush said looking back.

The president commended the troops for the progress made in Iraq during the past year, noting that the 101st completed the fastest deployment in its history, was responsible for finding and dealing with Saddam Hussein's sons, organized the first free local election in Iraq in 30 years and helped Iraqis restore their country by building medical clinics and schools.

"One year ago tomorrow, the Armed Forces of the United States entered Iraq to end the regime of Saddam Hussein," Bush said. "After his years of defiance, we gave the dictator one final chance. He refused. And so in one year's time, Saddam Hussein has gone from a palace to a bunker to a spider hole to jail."

Noting Sept. 11 taught a lesson he will never forget, the president said his administration, members of Congress and the United Nations all agreed Iraq presented an imminent threat.

"I had a choice to make: Either take the word of a madman or take such threats seriously and defend America. Faced with that choice, I will defend America every time," Bush said to thunderous applause from the troops.

"When Saddam Hussein went down, the terrorists lost an ally forever," he said. "Because America and our allies acted, an aggressive threat to the security of the Middle East and the peace of the world is now gone."

Bush again thanked the soldiers for their bravery and commitment to their calling in a time of war. He mentioned the accomplishments of a similar generation of soldiers during World War II.

"Like your fathers and grandfathers before you, you have liberated millions from oppression. You've added to the momentum of freedom across the world," the president said. "You have helped keep America safe. You make us all proud to be Americans, and you have made me proud to be your commander in chief."

Feedback from the soldiers indicated the president's visit helped validate all they endured for the past year.

"He makes us feel like we're doing something important and actually worth doing," Spc. Matthew Mitchell said.

After addressing the troops, the president and first lady had lunch with a small group of soldiers and then met privately with the families of 101st soldiers who were killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The 101st had more casualties than any other division, with 60 soldiers killed.

Bush spoke from the White House March 19 to mark the one-year anniversary of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, saying the war on terror is not a figure of speech but "an inescapable calling of our generation."

"One year ago, military forces of a strong coalition entered Iraq to enforce United Nations demands, to defend our security and to liberate that country from the rule of a tyrant," Bush said. "For Iraq, it was a day of deliverance. For the nations of our coalition, it was a moment when years of demands and pledges turned to decisive action."

Bush said Iraq is undoubtedly better off than it was a year ago, and he commended those who contributed to the cause.

"One year after the armies of liberation arrived, every soldier who has fought, every aid worker who has served, every Iraqi who has joined in their country’s defense can look with pride on a brave and historic achievement," he said. "They’ve served freedom's cause, and that is a privilege."

Representatives from 84 countries that have played a role in the war on terror joined Bush at the White House.

"We are the nations that have recognized the threat of terrorism, and we are the nations that will defeat that threat," the president said. "Each of us has pledged before the world: We will never bow to the violence of a few. We will face this mortal danger, and we will overcome it together."

Despite the recent terror attacks in Madrid and elsewhere, which have caused civilians to suddenly find themselves on the front lines, Bush offered hope that the direction the coalition is taking is one that will ultimately pay off.

"In the 1970s, the advance of democracy in Lisbon and Madrid inspired a democratic change in Latin America," Bush noted. "In the 1980s, the example of Poland ignited a fire of freedom in all of Eastern Europe. With Afghanistan and Iraq showing the way, we are confident that freedom will lift the sights and hopes of millions in the greater Middle East."

The president and first lady then visited injured soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

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