ARLINGTON, Va. (Feb. 29, 2012) — Like the military branches they represent, the Iraq veterans who gathered here today are diverse. More than 60 troops and veterans of both sexes and a range of ages, backgrounds and experiences came together at a local hotel as they prepared to receive an honor they have all earned: the nation’s thanks for their service.
This evening, as guests of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at a White House dinner, they will represent the million-plus U.S. troops who served in Iraq and the families who supported their service.
The event is titled “A Nation’s Gratitude: Honoring the U.S. Troops of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn,” but veterans who spoke to reporters today overwhelmingly expressed their own thanks for the honor.
“It’s kind of surreal, because in my heart, I just feel like little Heather Wunderlich, a simple, plain girl who’s a wife and mother,” one National Guard sergeant said. “I’m very excited about it.”
Sgt. Heather N. Wunderlich, 28, a flight medic with the Nebraska National Guard, said in a telephone interview earlier this week she’s honored to represent her fellow Guard members, and particularly all the Iraq vets who didn’t return from combat there.
“All of us who are still alive, and came home alive, we owe those men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice the hugest debt of gratitude,” she said. The United States lost 4,409 service members in Iraq, according to Defense Department officials.
Some family members of fallen troops will be at tonight’s dinner, and Wunderlich said she wants them to know “that we know, and we will never forget them.”
Wunderlich deployed as a flight medic from 2006 to 2007 and from 2010 to 2011. She married her husband of just over one year, Sgt. Jeremie Wunderlich, 34, just before they both deployed in 2010, she added. He will attend tonight’s dinner as her guest.
During the first deployment, she was new to the military and to her job, Wunderlich noted.
“I only got about 30 days’ notice. I didn’t know anything about being a flight medic, I didn’t know anything about aviation. I didn’t know anybody,” she said.
Her second deployment, with four years of experience and with many friends in her unit, “I felt more comfortable, and I knew what an important job we do,” she said.
Wunderlich just completed her bachelor’s degree in nursing. She said her National Guard term of service will be up in a week, and she’s looking forward to civilian work and enjoying life with her family, including her husband’s teenage son and daughter, Riley and Grace.
“Being away from them the past couple years has been pretty difficult,” she said. “It’s time to focus on family now.”
Her time in Iraq, she said, gave her a better picture of the rest of the world and taught her not to take things in her life for granted.
Representing every corner of America from Alabama to the Virgin Islands, troops like Staff Sgt. Miguel Cruz, who’s from Puerto Rico but is stationed in Wisconsin, spoke to reporters today about their experiences in Iraq.
Cruz deployed with the 301st Military Police Company from 2004 to 2005, where his unit took over operations at Abu Ghraib immediately after the prisoner-abuse scandal that shook the military and the nation. He and his fellow Soldiers helped to turn around operations at the detention facility during their 14-month deployment, making so many improvements they earned a unit commendation medal, Cruz said.
Cruz was in the middle of a 30-day hospital stay stemming from complications following an appendectomy when he got a call from a Pentagon sergeant major inviting him to tonight’s dinner, he said.
“It’s a dream and an honor,” Cruz said, adding he hopes for the chance to thank the president and first lady for all they’ve done for service members.
Air Force Staff Sgt. J.H. Smith, who will represent Georgia at tonight’s dinner, said that like Wunderlich, he spent his first “eye-opening” deployment learning his job. During the first of six two-to-three-month deployments, Smith earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for precision fire from an AC-130U gunship, killing insurgents who were within 10 yards of the Navy SEALs the gunship’s crew was supporting.
“To have someone tell you, ‘You saved my life,’ that’s totally overwhelming,” he said. “Ultimately, I was just doing my job the way I was trained to.”
Smith logged 1,328 gunship flight hours, more than half of which were combat hours. With the military drawdown in Iraq, he said, newer service members typically get some time before they deploy. In contrast, he noted, he and his contemporaries often were “out the door within the month” of completing initial entry training.
The staff sergeant said he and his wife, Kerry-Ann, “jumped through some hoops” to prepare for tonight’s dinner, preparing his uniform, choosing her dress, and finding a babysitter for their son. Smith said he and his wife are excited about the opportunity.
“It’s totally overwhelming,” he added.
Navy Petty Officer Terrylee Thompson, 29, will represent Texas at tonight’s dinner. She said her six-month deployment at Camp Victory in 2006 and 2007 resulted in lifelong friendships with other service members she met there. “They’ve been there. They know what we had to go through,” she said.
Command Sgt. Maj. Ron Riling, Army Materiel Command sergeant major, said he will represent his home state of Michigan and his current state of assignment, Alabama, at the White House event.
The 48-year-old Riling deployed from 2003 to 2004 as an infantry brigade sergeant major, and from 2005 to 2006 as an infantry division sergeant major. He earned a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars during his deployment, and more than once led his troops in firefights.
“I really don’t talk about that — I’m trying to put that behind me,” he said.
Riling said he served as “another Soldier on the battlefield, just like anybody else.”
“I just did my duties and did what my Soldiers would have done, taking the fight to the enemy,” he added.
The worst experience he had in Iraq was losing Soldiers for whom he, as a leader, felt responsible, Riling said.
“These are young American sons and daughters over there fighting for their country,” he added. “Nobody wants to lose a Soldier.”
His best memories of Iraq involve restoring services to the Iraqi people, bringing peace and building schools, he said.
“You meet great Iraqi people over there. Those are the good memories,” he added.
Riling said he tells today’s Soldiers to prepare for future deployments by learning the basics, practicing their skills and holding themselves to high standards and strict discipline.
“If you have discipline and standards, and you know your basics and you know how to Soldier, then you’re going to do pretty [well] in combat,” he said.
Riling said as an Iraq veteran, he appreciates the support the nation’s civilians give their military members.
“The great Americans out there are always thanking the Soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen. I think America receives us pretty well,” he said.