By Sgt. Darron Salzer, National Guard BureauMarch 1, 2012
ARLINGTON, Va. (March 1, 2012) -- On Wednesday night, 78 members of the military who served in Iraq stood tall as they prepared for dinner at the White House with President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.
"I am proud to have been selected to join the president for dinner," said Sgt. Sarah Adams, a medic now serving at Fort Hood, Texas. "It is an honor to be chosen among the thousands of brave Soldiers who fought to defend our nation."
Chief Warrant Officer 5 Kevin Purtee, an aviation and safety and standardization officer with the Texas Army National Guard, said he and his wife received a personal invitation in the mail from the Obamas, asking them to the Nation's Gratitude dinner.
"I was absolutely blown away," Purtee said. "I didn't know what to think. There is nothing like opening up your mailbox and finding an invitation from the White House -- handwritten -- to you."
Purtee said he has no illusions about whom or what he is, and that he is absolutely humbled to have been selected to represent the members of the Army National Guard who have deployed over the past decade.
"My wife and I are both very humbled to be in attendance for this event," said Staff Sgt. Benjamin Straubel, human resources sergeant, Headquarters, Headquarters Company, 286th Combat Support Sustainment Battalion, Maine National Guard. "It's really an honor to represent Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans and Operation New Dawn veterans. Some of them didn't have a chance to come home, so we're keeping that at the forefront of our minds and are excited, but also humbled."
"I am reminded of how much my fellow patriots have sacrificed during this conflict," said Maj. Shannon N. Thompson, an armor officer who served three tours in Iraq and is now at Thaad Missile Defense Agency, Redstone Arsenal, Ala. "And although I understand that it is not practical to invite every individual that participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn, I wish they all could be here. All gave some -- some gave all"
"It's overwhelming," said Spc. Janice Flores, a transportation driver in the Guam National Guard. "I never dreamed of being selected for such an honorable event, and to meet the president of the United States is just overwhelming."
"The island is excited, my family is excited, and I am definitely excited," Flores said. "I can't wait to shake his hand and say to him, 'Hafa adai Mr. President, from the island of Guam.' To meet the president is a once in a lifetime opportunity and coming all the way from Guam, a small island, is just an overwhelming opportunity."
The selected honorees were also given the opportunity to enjoy the city as part of their stay in the nation's capital.
"My wife and I are both history fanatics, and being able to see the things that you've studied your whole life is what we look forward to the most," Straubel said. "We were able to visit the Capitol building Tuesday and see the Senate in session, and I think seeing the White House for real is just going to be an unbelievable event."
Flores, who is visiting the capital for the first time, said, "I've had the opportunity to see a lot of the memorials -- the Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Memorial and the George Washington Memorial. At the World War II Memorial, it was nice to see Guam since it was a part of that as well. To also see the White House and stand in front of it was great, too."
Many of the honorees learned of their selection mere weeks before the dinner at the White House.
"I received a phone call about three weeks ago to come down to the adjutant general's headquarters because I was a finalist for a dinner and then a week ago I found out that I was going to coming here to meet President and Mrs. Obama," said Sgt. Heather Wunderlich, a flight medic in the Nebraska Army National Guard.
"I wake up every day still not believing it," Wunderlich said. "I consider myself a real simple person from Nebraska, and it's crazy to be here as one of six Soldiers representing the Army National Guard."
"I only knew about being selected two weeks ago and it was definitely a shock -- it's definitely amazing," said Air Force Master Sgt. Kevin Bullivant, 151st Air Refueling Wing, Explosive Ordnance Disposal Flight, Utah Air National Guard.
In addition to meeting the president, many of the Guard members said they looked forward to meeting other veterans.
"The part that I was looking forward to has already happened," Bullivant said, "and that was getting a chance to talk with some of these other men and women and hearing them share their stories. It truly is an honor, and I feel really lucky to be here, and it's awesome to see all of the other veterans from the Iraq War and the sacrifices they've made. It's a really awesome experience."
"Just to shake the president's hand and see him smile would be my greatest achievement -- seeing his smile in person," said Sgt. 1st Class James O. Gaston, flight engineer instructor, Virgin Islands Army National Guard. "I will remember this moment for a very long time."
Flores agreed that meeting the president is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"It's a feeling that I can't describe, but I will always be able to say that I met the president of the United States," she said.
(Army National Guard Sgt. Darron Salzer writes for the National Guard Bureau. Information was added to his story from the Joint Hometown News Service, Defense Media Activity.)