By Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr. March 1, 2012
WASHINGTON (AFPS, March 1, 2012) -- President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a White House tribute to Iraq War veterans and their families last night to honor them for their service, sacrifice and commitment to the nation.
Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, along with senior officials from all branches of service joined the president and the first lady at an event dubbed "A Nation's Gratitude: Honoring Those Who Served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn."
"In one of our nation's longest wars, you wrote one of the most extraordinary chapters in American military history," Obama told the more than five dozen Iraq veterans and their guests. "Now, the Iraqi people have a chance to forge their own destiny, and every one of you who served there can take pride in knowing you gave the Iraqis that opportunity -- that you succeeded in your mission."
The vice president lauded service members for their ability to adapt to challenges, the capture of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the opportunity they gave the people of Iraq to have a self-governing, self-sufficient nation.
"You're incredible. You adapted, you succeeded and you defeated," Biden said. "You defeated a tyrant, [and] you beat back violent extremists. And the most remarkable thing you did, because of the breadth of your capability, you enabled a country that had not been governed in any reasonable way for over four decades, you actually helped them set up institutions and train a military and a civilian corps that gives them a real fighting chance."
Panetta expressed his gratitude to all in attendance as well as the million-plus service members they represented. He said he admired the troops who left the comforts of their families and homes to face "brutal realities" in places such as Baghdad, Ramadi, Fallujah and Sadr City in Iraq.
"Your unflagging commitment and uncommon dedication helped the Iraqis realize a dream of building an independent and sovereign nation that could secure and defend itself," he said. "It's not going to be easy. The fact is you gave them an opportunity to be a democracy."
"To all who fought in Iraq, we thank you for your service," he said. "You've earned our nation's everlasting gratitude. We are indebted to you for your willingness to fight [and] your willingness to sacrifice for your country.
"We are [also] indebted to your families and your loved ones for the sacrifices that they made so that their loved ones could help defend this nation," Panetta said.
The chairman, who was first to speak, thanked the president and first lady for paying tribute to veterans and families of the Iraq War.
"Mr. President, Mrs. Obama, thank you for recognizing the service and sacrifice of the military family in this very special way," he said. "We really appreciate the support that you, the vice president and Dr. Biden, and those that they bound together in the 'Joining Forces' initiative and the nation provide us."
The first lady and Dr. Biden have championed the Joining Forces effort, which seeks to mobilize tangible support for service members and their families in all sectors of American society.
Dempsey noted that in addition to the Joint Chiefs, three former commanders of U.S. forces in Iraq -- Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, retired Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., and retired Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez -- were in attendance.
Just before dinner began, the president emphasized how proud he is of the U.S. military for working together to achieve success in Iraq.
"As your commander in chief, I could not be more proud of you," Obama said. "As an American, as a husband and father of two daughters, I could not be more grateful for your example [of] the kind of country we can be, [and] for what we can achieve when we stick together."
Obama paid tribute to "courageous" troops who served despite the likelihood of being sent into harm's way and to fallen service members and their families.
"You taught us about sacrifice -- a love of country so deep, so profound, you're willing to give your life for it," he said. "Tonight, we pay solemn tribute to all who did."
Obama recalled five service members who were the first casualties of the Iraq War, and the last U.S. casualty there, who was killed Nov. 14.
"Separated by nearly nine years, they are bound for all time among the nearly 4,500 American patriots who gave all that they had to give," the president said. "To their families, including the Gold Star families here tonight, know that we will never forget their sacrifice, and that your loved ones live on in the soul of our nation, now and forever."