<b>CAMP RAMADI, Iraq </b>- The U.S. combat mission in Iraq officially ended Aug. 31, and Soldiers with 4th Advise and Assist Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, United Division - Center, began Operation New Dawn with one of the nation's top leaders.

U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates - who announced Iraq's operational name change in February - visited Iraq Sept. 1, and, during one stop, met with the Vanguard Brigade Soldiers at Camp Ramadi, Iraq.

"My main purpose in coming here is simply to thank you for your service and to thank your Families for their support in your service," Gates said while speaking to about 300 4th AAB Soldiers at the Ramadi Event Center.

Gates said his visit to Ramadi was especially meaningful to him, as he knew troops and fellow friends who were casualties while serving in Anbar province in 2005.

"We have very personal and enduring connections to this city and this province," he said. "Because of their sacrifices and the sacrifices that so many others have made who have served here, a remarkable transformation has taken place."

Gates said he remembers arriving at Al Asad Air Base almost three years ago and that it was clear to him then that the new strategy of Americans partnering with Iraqis in Anbar was the decisive turning point in this conflict.

"Since then, you and those before you nurtured this partnership and produced dramatic changes here and throughout Iraq," he said. "In many ways, it is the model of the new advise and assist mission here in Anbar Province. Even as combat operations come to an end in Iraq, and our attention increasingly shifts to Afghanistan, you should know that your work is still critical to the ultimate success of our efforts here and appreciated by the American people. Never forget the (service members) whose blood was spilled here to afford a better future for the Iraqi people and preserve our security at home."

Gates personally thanked each Soldier in attendance and gave them each a coin that he considered a "small token of (his) appreciation."

Gates also presented Spc. Shawn Mason, a military police Soldier with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 4th AAB, 3rd ID with a Purple Heart. Specialist Mason was wounded when his vehicle was hit by an RKG-3 grenade, Aug. 9.

Page last updated Thu September 2nd, 2010 at 16:55