Bush spends 90 minutes with slain soldiers' families

President Bush held private and at times emotional meetings Thursday with the families of five Maine soldiers who died in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon.

The midday meetings, which lasted a total of about 90 minutes, were held at Sea Road School in Kennebunk.

Reporters were kept outside, and the White House did not release the names of the families who attended. But after the presidential motorcade sped away, some of the families agreed to discuss their closed-door conversations.

"I said it's time to stop the bleeding," said Hildi Halley, whose husband, Army National Guard Capt. Patrick Damon, died June 15 in Afghanistan. "It's time to swallow our pride and find a solution."

She said Bush responding by saying "there was no point in us having a philosophical discussion about the pros and cons of the war."

The president became emotional, Halley said, when she tearfully described the impact her 41-year-old husband's death has had on herself and their two kids, ages 12 and 14, both of whom attended the meeting.

"He wept and hugged me and apologized for my pain," Halley said.

Shortly after her husband died, Halley asked Sen. Olympia Snowe to help arrange a meeting with Bush. Snowe subsequently wrote a letter to the president, asking him to meet with the fallen soldier's family.

After the meeting, Bush spoke separately with Damon's mother, Barbara Damon-Day of Newcastle. She has been seeking a congressional inquiry into her son's death. She questions the preliminary conclusion that her son died of an apparent heart attack. She said that Bush put her in touch with other high-ranking officials.

"I came to get contacts. I wanted to talk to people who could make a difference in Washington, D.C.," she said. "I am so glad I came."

Members of two other families who came to Kennebunk expressed support for Bush after their meetings.

"To meet with the president, it's something I never thought would happen," said Nancy Kelley, whose son, Army Capt. Christopher Cash, was killed in Iraq in 2004. "We were honored -- just to share our thoughts about Chris and how he felt about his service to our country."

During a half-hour audience with the president, Kelley said they spoke "on a number of subjects, but Christopher was first and foremost."

"I had brought him a framed picture of Chris in Iraq with Iraqi children," said Nancy Kelley, who has dedicated a Web site, a scholarship, and a 5K race to Cash's memory. She said she was impressed by the president's interest in her son.

"He cares about every single family, and he has been doing this all around the whole country."

Kelley and her husband, Robert, said the 30 minutes passed quickly, and that, thanks to the President's easygoing nature, the conversation drifted.

"We had a lot of just general banter about Scottish terriers and Old Orchard Beach and how it was changing," said Robert Kelley.

The couple chose to steer clear of politics.

"We just shared the fact that we were very proud of Chris, and that he was very proud to serve his country," Robert Kelley said. "We've supported the president all the way along.

"Chris supported him, we still support him, and we've never had any second thoughts about the president and what he's trying to do."

David Schlegel came with his mother Thursday to honor the memory of his brother, Navy Cmdr. Robert Schlegel, who died in the attack on the Pentagon nearly five years ago.

"The anniversary of it brings back a lot of memories," said Schlegel, who also served in the Navy, "and this meeting actually brings a little more meaning to it."

Schlegel said his impressions of the president changed in the quarter-hour they spent together.

"You see a different side in person from what you see in the TV," he said. "Once I met him in person, I was very impressed by his genuineness and sincerity. It wasn't like we were sitting across the table from somebody -- we were three chairs, grouped, and I probably could have reached out and touched him."

What Schlegel found most surprising was simply the attention.

"I was impressed that it lasted so long," he said. "It's nice to know that somebody that high up actually appreciates, and can take 15 to 20 minutes out of their schedule, with everything else that's going on in the world, to spend time with a family that was really affected by this."

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