The pride of “wearing the uniform” was clear and present inside the MacDill Air Force Base sports center Wednesday where 1,200 service members from all branches crowded together to hear President Barack Obama.
Most were dressed in the everyday, camo uniform. They greeted the president with an enthusiasm that belied the rainy, gray skies outside.
President Obama talked directly to the men and women. He said he came to thank them for their sacrifice and for their commitment to the country.
Air Force Tech Sgt. Tanika Belfield appreciated the personal message in his speech.
“The thing that stood out to me most is him making sure to speak of those who were wounded and that he knows that he’s in a room of people who have lost friends,” Belfield said.
The president told the troops he would not send them back to Iraq, but Belfield said she’s ready to go if called to Iraq.
“That has to remain fluid as the threats change and intel changes,” Belfield said. “We’re briefed and we’re prepared and we’re ready.”
Captain Darrell Rievs has served in the Air Force 26 years and has been deployed countless times throughout the U.S. In all that time, this was the first time he’d been in the same room with the president.
“It’s a great honor and very encouraging to the troops that he stopped by,” Rievs said.
He was pleased to hear the president refer to the military’s upcoming role in the fight against Ebola in Africa. And Rievs said he is willing to deploy again if needed.
“It’s just an honor to wear the uniform. If duty calls, I’m there,” Rievs said.
After meeting with the troops, President Obama visited Tinker Elementary School on base. He chatted with first graders and one asked if he fought in the Civil War.
“No, I was born in 1961.”
In Ms. Slagal’s class, the president shook hands with every student and admired the spikey haircut of one boy.
A little boy raised his hand and then, when the president called on him, couldn’t remember what he was going to say.
“That happens to me all the time,” President Obama said. “I think I have a good point, and then…. the press makes fun of me.”
The president spent the morning touring U.S. Central Command and discussing strategy with CENTCOM Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin and his staff. They are responsible for 20 countries in the Middle East, South and Central Asia including Iraq and Syria where the Islamic State group has seized territories.
The U.S. House has passed legislation allowing the president to arm and train Syrian rebels in the fight against Islamic State militants. But some Democrats are concerned that the strategy will backfire. But even without the support of dozens of Democrats, the proposal won House approval Wednesday. The Senate is expected to approve it Thursday.