WASHINGTON, Jan. 6, 2009 - The top Defense Department leaders honored President George W. Bush today at a farewell ceremony for his deep commitment to the men and women in uniform and their families and the trust he instilled as he led them through challenging times.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in praising Bush during the armed forces farewell ceremony at Fort Myer, Va.

"In my 44 years of wearing this uniform, I have never seen the American public and our military as bonded in understanding, purpose and spirit as I do right now," Mullen told Bush. "For this, Mr. President, we owe you our greatest gratitude."

Gates said Bush fostered that close relationship throughout his presidency.

"The president's deep regard and affection for our servicemembers and their families has played out in ways big and small," he said. Gates pointed to examples: "surprise visits to Iraq and Afghanistan to shake hands and high-five [troops], ... personal phone calls to those deployed over Thanksgiving, and even the occasional chest bump to unwary cadets."

As he sent troops into harm's way, Bush never hid from the human consequences of his decisions, Gates said. He made countless visits to wounded warriors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the National Naval Medical Center and other military hospitals. He and first lady Laura Bush also met with thousands of family members of wounded and fallen troops.

Gates recalled Bush's visit with Army Staff Sgt. Michael McNaughton, a Louisiana National Guardsman being treated at Walter Reed after losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan. The president suggested that the two go for a run after McNaughton received his prosthetic leg, and carried through with the plan several months later on a track around the White House's South Lawn.

"A single promise to a single soldier. A small act that reflects President Bush's commitment to care for and honor every member of the armed forces," Gates said.

"Mr. President, every day these volunteers execute your orders with courage and determination - facing down danger for the greater good of America," he continued. "On behalf of more than 2 million men and women in uniform, we are deeply grateful for your leadership and service to America in a time of war."

Mullen thanked the president and Mrs. Bush for embracing the military family, and particularly those who have sacrificed heavily in the war on terror.

"You have proven that how well we care for our wounded and the families of the fallen defines who and what we really are as a nation," he said. "You made it personal, and that has made all the difference."

Some of the most powerful accolades during the ceremony came not from the leaders, but from the troops themselves.

Mullen shared thoughts penned by several deployed servicemembers in a journal he and his wife, Deborah, carried with them during recent troop visits overseas.

"Mr. President, thank you and your family for your service. I am proud to serve under you, sir," wrote Army Staff Sgt. Ward from Queens, N.Y. Like several who signed the journal, he did not include his first name.

"You are awesome, and made a difference in the world," Ward wrote.

Army Lt. Col. Scott Raney, deployed to Baghdad, extended his thanks to Mrs. Bush. "Your class and dignity were an inspiration to us all," he wrote.

The writing of Air Force Master Sgt. Michael Fraser brought levity to the ceremony as he referred to a shoe-throwing incident in Iraq last month.

"Sir, nice to see that our president is still quick on his feet after eight years in office," Fraser wrote, bringing an outburst of laughter as Mullen read it at the ceremony. "Next time, pick up the shoe and throw it back," he continued. "We got your back."

Army Sgt. 1st Class Claude Cory from Waco, Texas, turned the tone serious. "Sir, you truly set the standard to uphold the peace and our very way of life so our kids can grow up in a peaceful world," he wrote. "We will always stand tall, one great nation and one great state, Texas."

Other servicemembers, who signed the journal simply as "Your soldiers," thanked Bush for his "service, example and leadership."

"We have not faltered. We will not fail," the anonymous servicemember continued. "With greatest respect and honor, we serve."

Mullen called the troop messages a sign of the deep mutual respect between Bush and the 2.4 million military men and women, as well as their families.

"Those voices are an answering volley to you for your high regard and great respect for every single man and woman who serves this nation," he said.

Gates presented the president and Mrs. Bush several awards in appreciation of their service. To Bush, he presented the Department of Defense Distinguished Public Service Award, U.S. Army Decoration for Distinguished Civilian Service, U.S. Navy Distinguished Public Service Award, U.S. Air Force Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service, and U.S. Coast Guard Distinguish Public Service Award.

The secretary presented Mrs. Bush the Department of Defense Outstanding Public Service Award.