Since the Iraq war began in 2003, it has become an annual pre-Christmas rite for President Bush to personally comfort wounded soldiers. He continued that tradition Wednesday, going bed-to-bed in an intensive care unit and handing out Purple Hearts to the valiant.

Bush was visiting with Marines wounded in Iraq and the medical staff treating them at the National Naval Medical Center here. Before going behind closed doors to spend about two hours with servicemen and women, Bush spoke briefly to medical care givers and troops able to leave their rooms.

He said the troops' sacrifices are serving an important goal.

"What we're seeing today is brave troops and committed citizens who are not only determined to chase down the killers and bring them to justice before they hurt us again, but understand that by spreading freedom and democracy we're battling an ideology of darkness with an ideology of hope, and we're laying that foundation for peace for generations to come," the president said.

"The task at hand is one that requires determination and discipline and great faith in the ideals of human freedom and human liberty. And so coming here today is a chance to not only thank you for being a part of this incredible team of healers, but also being a part of this historic moment."

The president and his wife, Laura, were seeing Marines in the intensive care unit, and awarding Purple Hearts to two of them. On another ward, he was visiting more Marines and their families and giving out three Purple Hearts, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.

The president makes occasional visits to either the Navy facility or Walter Reed Army Medical Center, nearby in Washington, to talk with soldiers recovering from injuries suffered in Iraq or Afghanistan. The pre-holiday pilgrimage to one of the facilities has become a staple on the president's schedule in each of the past three years.