WASHINGTON – President Bush got misty Friday afternoon after performing the most difficult part of his job, acting as "consoler-in-chief" and visiting troops injured in Iraq at local military hospitals.
"Laura and I have had an extraordinary experience ... to thank our troops that have been overseas and Iraq for their dedication and their service to their country. Because of troops like them, coalition troops, we have had an historic week," Bush said after his second visit of the day.
"Ours is an amazing country where a young soldier can be wounded on the battlefield and four days later be receiving the best health care possible," added the president, who appeared a little overwhelmed by his visits.
Some Democrats have called the visits hypocritical, because Bush has proposed some cuts in the Veterans' Affairs health care system.
Visiting the wounded soldiers has been an emotional job for this president, who ordered the troops to put their lives on the line in Iraq and elsewhere. After visiting injured soldiers back from Afghanistan last January, Bush emerged from Walter Reed Army Medical Center with tears in his eyes.
Bush has acknowledged the difficulty of sending America's young men and women into war, acknowledging in January that his orders have human costs.
Walter Reed Army Medical Center is one of two hospitals the president and Mrs. Bush visited Friday. The president and the first lady also met with injured troops at Bethesda Naval Medical Center.
About 46 battle casualties have been brought to Walter Reed since March 28; 23 are still there. One is a Marine, one is an Air Force airman, and 21 of them are in the Army. The hospital has received 33 inpatients and 13 outpatients. Eight new ones arrived Thursday night, and hospital officials expect no more than five new arrivals Friday night.
At Walter Reed, the Bushes were greeted by Gen. Kevin Kiley, commander of Walter Reed, and Col. Jonathan Jaffin, commander of the Walter Reed Health System.
"I also want to thank the staffs of these hospitals, the leadership and the doctors and the nurses, the people who care for those who have been hurt, for their extraordinary service to their fellow Americans," Bush said.
While at Walter Reed, the president awarded Purple Heart medals to twelve soldiers for the injuries they suffered at the hands of the enemy. It is the oldest presidential recognition awarded to soldiers injured in combat, originating with Gen. George Washington.
At Bethesda Naval Center, the president spent time with 33 wounded Marines and sailors, presenting four Purple Hearts there. The president also witnessed two Marines becoming U.S. citizens. Individuals wishing to serve as Marines can do so if they have a green card.
Bush said watching the naturalization of two men — one from Mexico and one from the Philippines — was the most touching part of his day. Bush signed an executive order last summer that allows green card holders wounded in military action to get immediate citizenship.
"People who had gone overseas, people who had risked their lives for peace and security and freedom, wearing the uniform of the United States. It was a very profound moment," he said.
So far, 105 American troops have died and another 343 have been injured in the fighting in Iraq, according to the Pentagon. Eleven are missing and seven have been captured. Bush vowed Friday to recover the POWs.
Many of the soldiers who met with the president and first lady on Friday have gunshot or shrapnel wounds. They will be joined on Saturday by Pfc. Jessica Lynch, a former POW who was rescued last week from an Iraqi military hospital. Lynch and her unit were captured in an ambush on March 23. The sole known survivor of that ambush, Lynch has been recuperating in a military hospital in Germany.
Amid the president's visits, Democrats are taking a slap at the Bush administration's cuts in VA hospital funding. A 1996 law opened the VA health care system to almost all veterans. It now serves millions more than its traditional clients — low-income veterans with service-connected diseases and injuries.
Bush proposed a 7.7 percent increase, to $27.5 billion, for veterans' medical care in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, but included fee increases and limits on access.
The budget proposed charging veterans who earn about $24,000 a year or more an annual enrollment fee of $250. It calls for increasing co-payments for higher-income patients from $15 to $20 for outpatient primary care and $7 to $15 for prescription drugs.
And to the chagrin of many veterans' groups, about 164,000 veterans have been suspended from health-care system enrollments this year because of their earning power.
VA officials say the cuts are badly needed to preserve the care for traditional VA patients, whose number is expected to rise with casualties from Operation Iraqi Freedom.
While the debate rages in Washington over health-care costs, danger still lurks in Iraq despite the U.S. military's rout of Saddam Hussein's regime.
In his weekly radio address Saturday, Bush is expected to speak about freedom and the difficulties still confronting soldiers in Iraq.
Looting has been widespread and Iraqi police and firefighters have not bothered to show up for work. Local Iraqi leaders have yet to emerge.
But Bush said the progress so far has been historic.
"I don't think I will ever forget. I'm sure a lot of other people will never forget the statue of Saddam Hussein falling in Baghdad and then seeing the jubilation on the faces of ordinary Iraqis as they realized that the grip of fear that had them by the throat had been released, the first signs of freedom," he said.
The State Department said a meeting between the coalition and Iraqis, both exiles and those living in country, will occur April 15. U.S. war chief Gen. Tommy Franks is sending out invitations, determining who is an appropriate participant and which parts of the U.S. and British government will attend.
After the hospital stops, Bush and Mrs. Bush were flying to the Camp David presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains, where they have spent every weekend since the war started March 19.
Fox News' Molly Henneberg and James Rosen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.