By Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr.
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 1, 2012 – The Pentagon’s top leaders joined President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama last night in paying tribute to Iraq War veterans and their families at a White House dinner titled "A Nation’s Gratitude: Honoring Those Who Served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn."
More than five dozen service members, veterans and their guests represented the million-plus Americans who served in the war.
"Tonight we are truly in the company of heroes," Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said. "The honor that we present to all of you is because we care about those that have fought and sacrificed in Iraq. Mr. President, Mrs. Obama, we thank you deeply for honoring [these] heroes and welcoming them here into your home."
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 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.
"I’m particularly honored tonight to be joined by the Joint Chiefs, … with General George Casey, General Rick Sanchez and General Lloyd Austin, who honestly have done some incredible heavy lifting for our nation over the past decade. You all stand tall in an exceptionally long list of dedicated leaders who put their heart and soul into seeing our difficult mission in Iraq through."
Panetta expressed admiration for 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."
The defense secretary called the veterans part of the new "greatest generation of Americans" responding to the nation’s call of duty.
"Deployment after deployment, you’ve been willing to serve this nation," Panetta said. "You’ve been willing to put your lives on the line, and you’ve been willing to die in order to protect this country. You have done everything this country asked you to do."
Dempsey noted the Iraq War could, in a sense, be considered a "family affair," as the families of service members also made profound sacrifices.
"What I mean by that is some of us sent our sons and daughters into this conflict over the past 20 years," he explained. "All of us left our families behind, and tour after tour, they served and supported every bit as much as we did."
The chairman said that although the road in Iraq was "very tough," the military learned the power of relationships — "relationships rooted in trust and respect within ourselves, but also with our Iraqi brothers and sisters."
"And we saw just how profoundly impressive America’s fighting force is — the armed forces of the United States: soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen, and family members like all of you here tonight … proudly represent," Dempsey said.
Panetta said U.S. troops can stand proud of all they accomplished in Iraq, and that the nation will "never forget the sacrifices of those who are not with us this evening."
"We pledge to their memories, and we pledge to all of you that we will never forget and we will never retreat from what you’ve accomplished," he said.
The secretary noted that he has referred to the end of the Iraq War as "a beginning."
"For America tonight, this is not the end," Panetta said. "It is the beginning of a long-lasting tribute to you and to all who served in Iraq. This country was built upon the service and sacrifice of men and women like you."
Panetta spoke proudly of U.S. troops for their willingness to selflessly step forward to defend freedom, and said the nation owes them something in return.
"Just as you have recognized and fulfilled your responsibility to this nation, we must do the same for you," he said. "As secretary of defense, I can’t tell you how proud I am of you and how proud I am of every American who serves this country in uniform."