BANGOR (AP) – President Bush delayed his takeoff from the airport Thursday to visit with nearly 300 soldiers whose charter plane stopped to refuel en route to Iraq.

Bush walked through the airplane shaking hands, signing autographs and chatting with the soldiers, who were from two National Guard units and a reserve unit in North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

“I appreciate being president to such fine men and women, God bless you all. God keep you safe,” Bush said over the plane’s public address system shortly before he departed.

“I’m stunned. I’m overjoyed,” said Sgt. Rebecca Throckmorton, of Springfield, Ohio. She picked up her cell phone and told her mother the president was aboard.

White House chief of staff Andy Card said Bush wanted to meet the soldiers before the aircraft, which had been scheduled to arrive for refueling shortly after Air Force One was to depart.

“We got them to push the gas peddle a little bit,” Card said. The plane landed and parked about 100 yards behind Air Force One.

Packed nearly full with 292 soldiers, the plane had departed from Fort Bragg, N.C.

Bush was in Bangor to address an airport rally with supporters.

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