Remarks by President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary Panetta, and General Dempsey
Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–February 29, 2012 – 8:07 P.M. EST
GENERAL DEMPSEY: You can go ahead and keep — you do whatever you got to do. I’ll do whatever I got to do. (Laughter.) That’s what the chain of command is all about.
This morning, my wife, Deanie, we woke up and she said, “You know today is a special day.” And I said, “Of course it is. We’ve been invited to the White House to celebrate the end of mission in Iraq.” And she said, “No, no.” I mean, she said, “That’s pretty cool, actually.” But she said, “It’s also Leap Year. It’s the 29th of February. It only comes around once every four years.” And then she said — and so, in thinking about that, she said, “Do not sing. Don’t even think about singing at this event tonight.” (Laughter.) “Because if you do, we are likely not to be invited back again for like the next four years.” (Laughter.) And she said —
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Sing!
GENERAL DEMPSEY: No. (Laughter.) And she said, “Besides, the President has a better voice.” (Laughter and applause.)
Now, sir, I’m your senior military advisor. I don’t agree with that assessment, personally. (Laughter.) But we’ll see.
I’m particularly honored tonight to be joined by the Joint Chiefs, who are scattered through the audience — with General George Casey, with 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 to completion.
For more than two decades — that’s the thing to remember here — for more than two decades, Iraq was a dominant part of our lives. In a sense, it was a family affair. And what I mean by that is some of us sent our own sons and daughters into this conflict over the past 20 years. All of us left our families behind. And tour after tour, they served and supported every bit as much as we did.
The road we traveled together was very tough. Every day required us to balance conflict and compassion, context and consequence. Everywhere and at every level, we 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, the Armed Forces of the United States — soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen — and family members like all of you here tonight, and those that I’ve known through the years, proudly represent. Because you, and those who didn’t come home with us, and those who returned forever changed, really made possible what we were able to accomplish in Iraq.
It was your courage, your resilience, and your sheer resolve to take care of each other, to defend our nation, and to provide the Iraqi people with a choice for their own future. Even in — and maybe even, I’d say, especially in — the toughest of times, your character and those you represent here tonight shine through. And it mattered.
Mr. President, Mrs. Obama, thank you for recognizing the service and sacrifice of the military family in this very special way. I really appreciate — we really appreciate — the support that you and the Vice President, and Dr. Biden and your wife, and those that they have bound together in the Joining Forces initiative, and the nation provide us, as men and women in uniform and the families that we represent. And I know that we all share a commitment to keep faith with them, and especially the thousands who have returned with wounds both seen and unseen.
There’s no one more strongly committed to their well-being than the person that I now have the opportunity and the privilege to introduce. Ladies and gentlemen, our Secretary of Defense, the Honorable Leon Panetta. (Applause.)
SECRETARY PANETTA: Thank you very much, General Dempsey. And he does have one hell of a voice. (Laughter.)
Thank you for your duty, for your dedication, for your service to this great nation that we all represent here this evening.
Tonight, we are truly in the company of heroes. The honor that we present to all of you is because we care about those who have fought and sacrificed in Iraq.
Mr. President, Mrs. Obama, we thank you deeply for honoring those heroes and welcoming them here into your home.
To all who fought in Iraq, we thank you for your service. You’ve earned our nation’s everlasting gratitude. We are indebted to you for your willingness to fight, your willingness to fight for your country. We are indebted to your families and to your loved ones for the sacrifices that they made so that their loved ones could help defend this nation.
Again and again and again, you left the comfort of family and friends, you left the comfort of this great country, and confronted brutal realities. Places like Baghdad, Ramadi, Fallujah, Sadr City, Najaf and elsewhere throughout 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.
It is not going to be easy, but the fact is you gave them the opportunity to be a democracy — because of you. You are part of a generation of Americans — the new, greatest generation of Americans — responding to the call of duty by your nation. Deployment after deployment, you’ve been willing to serve this nation. 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. You return to a grateful nation. And you can stand proud of all you’ve accomplished. We owe all of you the honor that your service is deserving. And we owe to you the assurance that we will never forget the sacrifices of those who are not with us this evening — those who gave their lives to this country. We pledge to their memory and we pledge to all of you that we will never forget and we will never retreat from what you’ve accomplished.
Last December in Baghdad, we cased the colors of the United States Forces Iraq. And I had the chance to be at that ceremony. And at the time I noted, this is not the end; this is truly the beginning.
For America tonight, this is not the end. 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. Our very democracy depends on people like you, who are willing to step forward and defend this country, to salute and, yes, to fight to give each of us a chance to pursue the American Dream, giving our children a better life.
And just as you have recognized and fulfilled your responsibility to this nation, we must do the same for you. It is now our responsibility, the responsibility of communities at every corner of this country, to embrace your return, to welcome you back, and to ensure that you and your families have the support you deserve.
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.
And now it is my honor to introduce someone who believes deeply in that American Dream — we are both products of that, as the children of those who came from other countries. And he is dedicated to defending and preserving that dream. I’m grateful to Vice President Biden and to Dr. Jill Biden for their continued strong support for our men and women in uniform. They have a son, Beau, who deployed to Iraq, so they know what this war is all about and the sacrifices that are required of military families.
Over the past three years, Vice President Biden has traveled to the region extensively and has played a tremendous role in steering Iraq policy. He probably deserves a combat badge for the political battles that he’s been involved in. And Jill has led the effort, along with Mrs. Obama, to support our military families.
On behalf of all of us at the Department of Defense, we thank the President, we thank Mrs. Obama, we thank the Vice President and Dr. Jill Biden, for their leadership, for their support and for their dedication to a strong America. Strong in mind, strong in body and strong in spirit.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Vice President of the United States. (Applause.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I came because I was expecting a duet tonight. (Laughter.) I thought maybe we were going to hear you and my Irish friend actually sing, Mr. President. I’m betting on you. (Laughter.)
Hey, look, let me begin by saying that — a special thanks to Generals Casey, Sanchez, Odierno and Austin. The good news for Casey and Sanchez, they only had to see me three or four times. Poor General O had to see me close to a dozen times, and General Austin put up with me at the end. I want to say to all of the brass in here and the Joint Chiefs — we owe you a debt of gratitude because you have trained the finest generation of warriors — and this is not hyperbole — the finest generation of warriors in the history of this country — and I would argue, in a literal sense, the finest generation of warriors in all of history.
I get frustrated as the President does when I hear talk about Generation X and how Generation X is — they’re not ready for all the travails that previous generations have been through. Most of you in this room are made up of what I call the 9/11 Generation. You are the most incredible generation this country has produced. Since 9/11, over 2.8 million of your generation, men and women, have joined the military, knowing, and in many cases, hoping, that you’d be sent into harm’s way.
More than a million of you strapped on desert boots and walked across those god-awful sands of Iraq, with temperatures up to 135-140 degrees, averaging about 117 degrees in the summer. Over a million of you. A million of you.
This journey began nine years ago, when armored vehicles rumbled across the border of Kuwait and into one of the most challenging missions that the American military has ever undertaken. And all of you sitting at our tables tonight, you know better than anyone, it was something — sometimes an impossible mission. Sometimes it was impossible to determine who the enemy was — who the enemy was.
That was just a few short years ago. A few short years ago, there were literally hundreds of bodies a day being piled up in the Baghdad morgue. The highways became mine fields. Irish Alley was the place that was one of the most dangerous places in the world. Every convoy was a test of faith. And you saddled up, every single day, after seeing some of your buddies blown up, after cleaning out the vehicles, and you saddled up the next day.
A bullet slipped in an envelope and slid under a family’s door became an unmistakable warning that they had to leave the house and the neighborhood or they would die. And while you may have been steeped in military doctrine — and you have been — you were also made to master the vagaries of local Iraqi politics — issues ranging from electricity to unemployment, from currency exchange to tax collection.
You’re incredible. You adapted. You succeeded. And you defeated. You defeated a tyrant. 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.
Today, because of you, rather than a giant vacuum in a strategically vital region, there’s a prospect of stability and prosperity. And that wasn’t luck, it wasn’t an accident; it was your sacrifice and hard work that made it possible. And it will never be forgotten.
Harry Truman — President Truman once described the end of a war as “a solemn but glorious honor — excuse me — “a solemn but glorious hour.” I believe — and it’s presumptuous of me to interpret what he meant, but I believe that he meant that honoring those who fought also requires remembering those who were lost: 4,475. And the exact number is important — 4,475 fallen angels. More than 30,000 wounded — some of you in this room. Others bear, as Leon said, the invisible scars of their experience.
The President obviously will speak for himself, but I can tell you we’re both awed — awed — by your sacrifice. But not just those of you who deployed, but your brothers, your sisters, your husbands, your wives, your moms, your dads.
John Milton, the English poet, once said, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” They also serve who only stand and wait. We owe you, your family members, almost as much as we owe you. Every morning I’d walk in and Jill would be getting her cup of coffee, standing over the sink, mouthing a prayer. You wives and husbands of the deployed person, your brothers and sisters — there wasn’t an hour a day that didn’t go by that they didn’t flash across your mind — wondering, is my husband, is my wife, is my son, is my daughter — are they okay? It’s an incredible thing to ask of so many people.
And now, in the finest American tradition, having carried out your mission, you’ve come home. As I said when I was with General Austin and with Talabani and Barzani and a couple of you, Colonel, were there — it’s good to see you here, Colonel, instead of in Baghdad.
But like every American before you, every warrior before you, you left Iraq, taking nothing with you but your experience, your achievements, and the pride associated with knowing that you did an incredible job. That’s an American tradition, too — taking nothing but your pride back home.
So on behalf of a grateful nation — there’s never going to be a way we can truly repay you, there’s no way to fully repay you — but let me simply say thank you. Thank you and your families for the heroic work you’ve done. You’ve made a difference, and I think you’ve helped chart a different course for history in the 21st century.
But, ladies and gentlemen, a man that I’ve sat with every day for the past three years or so, I’ve watched him make the decisions he had to make about war and conflict. I’ve watched him, how he’s done it. And I know — presumptuous of me to say — I know — I know every one of those decisions that had to be made hang heavy in his mind and his heart.
There’s no one I’ve encountered — and I’ve been here for eight Presidents — who cares more about you, and all of you who continue to serve, than this man.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud — I am proud to introduce to you your Commander-in-Chief and my friend, Barack Obama. (Applause.)
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you very much. Thank you so much, everyone. Please, please. Please, everyone, have a seat.
Thank you, Joe Biden, for not only outstanding remarks, but the extraordinary leadership you showed in helping to guide our policies.
To Secretary Panetta; General Dempsey to all the commanders who are here and did so much under such extraordinary circumstances to arrive at an outcome in which the Iraqi people have an opportunity to chart their own destiny — thank you for the great work that you’ve done.
I do have to say, despite Deanie’s advice, I thought Dempsey was going to burst into song. (Laughter.) You have not lived until you hear him belt out an Irish ballad. His voice is better than mine. I think you’re never a prophet in your own land, Marty, so your wives are there to cut you down a peg. (Laughter.)
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen: This house has stood for more than two centuries, through war and peace, through hardship and through prosperity. These rooms have hosted presidents and prime ministers, and kings and queens. But in the history of this house, there’s never been a night quite like this. Because this evening, we welcome, not the statesmen who decide great questions of war and peace, but citizens — men and women from every corner of our country, from every rank of our military, every branch of our service — who answer the call, who go to war, who defend the peace.
And in a culture that celebrates fame and fortune, yours are not necessarily household names. They’re something more — the patriots who serve in our name. And after nearly nine years of war in Iraq, tonight is an opportunity for us to express our gratitude and to say once more: Welcome home.
This is not the first time that we’ve paid tribute to those who served courageously in Iraq. This will not be the last. And history reminds us of our obligations as a nation at moments like this. This year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, a time when our veterans didn’t always receive the respect and the thanks that they so richly deserved — and that’s a mistake that we must never repeat.
The good news is, already, we’ve seen Americans come together — in small towns and big cities all across the country — to honor your service in Iraq. And tonight, on behalf of Michelle and myself, on behalf of over 300 Americans — 300 million Americans, we want to express those simple words that we can never say enough, and that’s thank you.
In your heart, each of you carries your own story — the pride of a job well done; the pain of losing a friend, a comrade. Ernie Pyle, who celebrated our GIs in World War II, said that your world can never be known to the rest of us. Tonight, what we can do is convey what you’ve meant to the rest of us. Because through the dust and the din and the fog of war, the glory of your service always shone through. In your noble example, we see the virtues and the values that sustain America, that keep this country great.
You taught us about duty. Blessed to live in the land of the free, you could have opted for an easier path. But you know that freedom is not free. And so you volunteered and you stepped forward, and you raised your hand and you took an oath — to protect and defend; to serve a cause greater than yourself, knowing, in a time of war, you could be sent into harm’s way.
You taught us about resolve. Invasion turned to insurgency and then sectarian strife. But you persevered, tour after tour, year after year. Indeed, we’re mindful that even as we gather here, Iraq veterans continue to risk their lives in Afghanistan, and our prayers are with them all tonight.
In one of our nation’s longest wars, you wrote one of the most extraordinary chapters in American military history. 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 this opportunity; that you succeeded in your mission.
You taught us about devotion — to country and to comrades, but most of all, to family. Because I know that some of the hardest days of war were the moments you missed back home — the birthdays, the anniversaries, when your little girl or boy took their first wobbly steps. And behind every one of you, was a parent, a spouse, or son or a daughter, trying to stay strong, and praying for the day that you’d come home safe. And that’s why Michelle and Dr. Biden have made it their mission to make sure America takes care of your families, because they inspire us as much as you do. They deserve that honor as much as you do.
That’s why I’d ask all the spouses and the partners and families to stand up and accept our gratitude for your remarkable service — especially because you look so good tonight. (Applause.)
You taught us about sacrifice — a love of country so deep, so profound, you were willing to give your lives for it. And tonight, we pay solemn tribute to all who did. We remember the first, on that first day of war: Major Jay Thomas Aubin; Captain Ryan Anthony Beaupre; Corporal Brian Matthew Kennedy; Staff Sergeant Kendall Damon Waters-Bey. And we remember the last — Specialist David Emanuel Hickman, November 14, 2011.
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. 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.
You taught us about strength — the kind that comes from within; the kind that we see in our wounded warriors. For you, coming home was the start of another battle — the battle to recover, to stand, to walk, to serve again. And in your resilience we see the essence of America, because we do not give up. No matter the hardship, we push on. And just as the wounds of war can last a lifetime, so does America’s commitment to you and all who serve — to give you the care you earned and the opportunities you need as you begin the next proud chapter in your lives.
And finally, all of you taught us a lesson about the character of our country. As you look across this room tonight, you look at our military — we draw strength from every part of our American family — every color, every creed, every background, every belief. And every day, you succeed together — as one American team.
As your Commander-in-Chief, I could not be more proud of you. 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, of what we can achieve when we stick together.
So I’ll leave you with a picture that captures this spirit. It’s from that day in December, when the last convoy rolled out — five American soldiers standing beside their vehicle, marked with the words, “Last vehicle out of Iraq.” They’re young, men and women, shoulder to shoulder, proud, heads held high, finally going home. And they were asked what it was like to be, literally, the last troops out of Iraq. And one of them gave a simple reply: “We completed the mission.” We completed the mission. We did our jobs.
So I propose a toast. To the country we love. To the men and women who defend her. And to that faith — that fundamental American faith — that says no mission is too hard, no challenge is too great; through tests and through trials, we don’t simply endure, we emerge stronger than before, knowing that America’s greatest days are still to come — and they are great because of you.
God bless you and your families. And may God continue to bless those in uniform and the United States of America.
Thank you very much, everybody. May dinner be served. (Applause.)
8:40 P.M. EST