CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – In an effort to boost morale, President Bush thanked U.S. Marines Tuesday for fighting in Iraq, where more than 1,200 service members have given their lives.
"I'm here to thank you for serving your country. We need you. In a season when Americans stop to count their blessings, I want you to know that one of America's greatest blessings is the men and women who wear the nation's uniform," Bush said.
"Your fellow citizens are proud of you and so is your commander in chief," he added.
To the families of America's service members, the president said: "Our nation is blessed because of our military families."
Bush also had lunch with Marines at Camp Pendleton (search), 38 miles north of San Diego, where 5,600 people report for duty every day. He planned to later meet with families of service members.
More than 21,000 Marines serving in Iraq and Kuwait are part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (search), based at Camp Pendleton, units of which led the assault on the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah last month.
Marines with the Force have done house-to-house searches for weapons in Fallujah, handed out food and water to Iraqi citizens, taken fire from rocket launchers and fought masked insurgents toting AK-47s.
"How are you all?" asked Bush, as he went through the cafeteria line in a mess hall. He emerged carrying a plate of beef, noodles and rice.
In his address later, Bush said the U.S. Marines were "one of the most feared and respected fighting forces in the world."
"And in these dangerous times when terrorists seek to hurt our families and hurt our citizens, Americans are thankful that Marines are on the front lines and taking the fight to the enemy," the president continued.
In the battle for Fallujah, in which U.S. and Iraqi forces rooted out enemy fighters — several of whom were found to be foreigners — ammunition was found hidden in ice cream trucks, homes and cemeteries. Torture chambers were also uncovered, as well as videos of beheadings. Hundreds of insurgents were killed or captured.
"[Terrorists] could not hide from the United States Marines," Bush said. "We have dealt the terrorists a severe blow ... the enemies of Iraq have been wounded but not yet defeated. They'll keep on fighting and so will the Marine Corps."
Camp Pendleton has one of the highest casualty rates in Iraq of any U.S. military base or installation.
The commander in chief arrived at Air Station Miramar around 11:15 a.m. EST. Once there, he awarded the presidential unit citation to a group of 1,500 troops formed in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks — an elite task force deployed in southern Afghanistan in Nov. 2001.
Bush told the troops to take pride in knowing their efforts were bearing fruit, pointing to the presidential inauguration of Hamid Karzai (search) Tuesday in Afghanistan's first democratic election as an important result of their hard work.
"Afghanistan has been transformed from a haven for terrorists to a steadfast ally in the War on Terror, and the American people are safer because of your courage," Bush said.
By visiting Camp Pendleton, where between 2,500 to 5,000 Marines and their families watched the president speak, Bush expressed solidarity with the people feeling the pain of the Iraq war most directly.
More than 200 Marines from units based at Camp Pendleton have died since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003.
Bush on Tuesday declared that terrorists wouldn't be able to control Iraq's destiny because "free people will never choose their own enslavement."
He added that as the Jan. 30 elections approached, "we can expect further violence" but that the balloting must take place.
A large crowd of Marines clad in tan-and-green camouflage uniforms bellowed "oo-rah," as Bush, who donned a tan military-style jacket with epaulets, thanked U.S. forces. He said the bravery and sacrifice of the troops had made America safer.
"You see, the terrorists understand what is at stake," the president said. "They know they have no future in a free Iraq."
"They [terrorists/insurgents] know democracy will give Iraqis a stake in the future of their country," Bush said. "When Iraqis choose their leader in free elections, it will destroy the myth that the terrorists are fighting a foreign occupation and make clear that what the terrorists really are fighting is the will of the Iraqi people."
In May 2003, Bush flew from San Diego to the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (search) where he declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq under a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished."
The event, less than two months after the invasion of Iraq, was roundly criticized when U.S. involvement in Iraq became more violent, American deaths continued to mount and U.S. forces failed to find weapons of mass destruction, the main rationale for the war.
Bush suggested ways Americans could actively support the troops.
Several options included a Defense Department program called "America Supports You," designed to showcase support for the military from individuals, businesses and groups as a way of encouraging others to do the same.
FOX News' Liza Porteus, James Rosen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.