Getting a phone call that you have a dinner scheduled with the president in the White House’s East Room might sound like a prank — and that’s what many Iraq war veterans thought when they got that call.
“My brigade commander said, ‘Hey, you’ve been selected as one of x number of people to go — congratulations,’” Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 John Nikolao said. “I kept waiting for him to say, ‘just kidding.’”
President Barack Obama and the first lady hosted the formal dinner of gratitude Wednesday night for those who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn and their family members. In a room typically reserved for heads of states, veterans and their families were invited to commemorate the end of the war.
“These rooms have hosted presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens,” Obama said. “But in the history of this house, there has never been a night quite like this.”
The nearly 80 veterans, hand-selected by Pentagon officials, are meant to serve as a cross-section of not only the more than 1 million troops who served in Iraq, but the U.S. in general. Every state and territory was to be represented.
Once it became clear that the news of the dinner was real, one word became a theme among those vets: humbled.
Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Max Rohn of Colorado lost part of his right leg in a blast after spending just five months in Iraq. Yet his mind was still on the rest of his unit during the festivities.
“It’s really remarkable,” Rohn said. “I’m at a loss for words. I’m here for them.”
Nearly 4,500 U.S. troops died supporting the Iraq war, from which U.S. forces officially withdrew in December. Another 32,000 were wounded in action there. And the fact that thousands more remain in harm’s way in Afghanistan and elsewhere was not forgotten Wednesday night.
“A lot of people are still deployed currently,” Nikolao said, representing American Samoa. “I’m really honored to represent all of those people today and they still remain in our thoughts and prayers.”
With such a small number of service members representing the 1 million that served in Iraq, some voiced concerns that the dinner was not enough to pay tribute to all Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom veterans.
Army Major Carter Price said that argument could not exist without being able to celebrate the end of a war.
“What a great controversy to have,” Price said, representing West Virginia. “Should we have a parade or not?”
Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Harry Prassenos representing Mississippi said just the day-to-day recognition they get is enough.
“The daily ‘God Bless you’s’ from former service members and civilians — I think that’s enough,” Prassenos said.
Marine First Sgt. Christina Hunts Horse-May of South Dakota said the best part of the dinner was that it united the various members of the military.
“I feel proud to represent the Marines,” Hunts Horse-May said. “But I am most excited that the commander in chief brought us all together.”
Vice President Joe Biden spoke of the troops’ difficult mission in Iraq and the unexpected duties they were called to fill, including tax collection and shaping local Iraqi policy.
Obama also promised the country’s continued effort to address the needs of this generation’s warriors. This is not the first tribute to those who served in Iraq, Obama said, and it won’t be the last.
“The wounds of war can last a lifetime, but so does America’s commitment to you and all who served,” he said.
story by: Gina Harkins
photo courtesy of: Sgt. Mark Fayloga, USMC