FORT CAMPBELL — President Barack Obama on Friday privately thanked some of the special military operators who killed Osama bin Laden during his first visit to Kentucky since becoming president. "Job well done," he said of their daring raid.
In a series of closed-door meetings, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met with some of the special operations forces who went on Sunday's early morning raid in Pakistan, and with members of the broader assault force that supported the mission.
"I came here for a simple reason: to say thank you on behalf of America," Obama told soldiers at Fort Campbell, the home of the 101st Airborne Division, after his private meetings.
"Thanks to the incredible skill and courage of countless individuals, intelligence, military, over many years, the terrorist leader who struck our nation on 9/11 will never threaten America again," he said.
The president said he had visited New York the day before to pay homage to the victims of bin Laden's 2001 terrorist attacks, as well as to the firefighters and police who responded to the catastrophe.
"I promised that our nation will never forget those we lost that dark September day," he told about 2,000 troops in a steamy hangar.
"And today, here at Fort Campbell, I had the privilege of meeting the extraordinary special ops folks who honored that promise," he said. "It was a chance for me to say, on behalf of all Americans and people around the world, job well done. Job well done."
He called the special forces "America's quiet professionals, because success demands secrecy."
He linked their work to the work of all the forces at the base, many of them just back from tours in Afghanistan.
"Like all of you, they could have chosen a life of ease," Obama told the soldiers. "But like you, they volunteered. They chose to serve in a time of war, knowing they could be sent into harm's way. They trained for years. They're battle-hardened. They practiced tirelessly for this mission. And when I gave the order, they were ready.
"Now, in recent days, the whole world has learned just how ready they were. These Americans deserve credit for one of the greatest intelligence-military operations in our nation's history."
The commandos briefed Obama personally about the raid, White House aides said, and he gave each of the groups the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest honor he can give a military unit.
The extraordinary sessions were kept private to protect the identities of those involved and to shield them from becoming targets of terrorist reprisals.
Obama then met with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and the 5th Special Forces Group to thank them for their service.
Underneath a huge American flag and with camouflage netting adorning the stage, the president said he had made the hastily arranged trip to personally thank "the most capable" warriors in the history of the world.
He recognized the 125 soldiers from the base who "have made the ultimate sacrifice" in Afghanistan since early last year. He said the American military had "broken the Taliban's momentum" to promote terrorism in Afghanistan.
"We are ultimately going to defeat al-Qaida," the president said, to loud cheers from the soldiers.
But Obama said he didn't want to fool anyone: "This continues to be a tough fight."
The president, who shed his suit jacket to speak in the warm hangar located along the Kentucky-Tennessee border, recounted a letter he had received Monday from a 14-year-old New Jersey girl who lost her father in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"We're still the America that does the hard things, the great things," Obama said.
Biden spoke for about eight minutes before the president and said he had told his granddaughter that he was "going to see the guys who got bin Laden."
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear was not present for Obama's visit. His office said it was too late for the Democratic governor to change his schedule. He spent the day at Louisville's Churchill Downs attending the Kentucky Oaks.