By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 14, 2011 – When the last U.S. troops in Iraq case their colors and move to Kuwait, they can leave with their heads held high, secure in the knowledge they did what was right for America and peace in the region, President Barack Obama told service members at Fort Bragg, N.C., today.
Obama noted the end of the war in Iraq during his speech to thousands of service members — many of whom served multiple tours in Iraq since 2003.
The most important lesson from the war in Iraq is about America’s national character, Obama said.
“For all of the challenges that our nation faces, you remind us that there’s nothing we Americans can’t do when we stick together,” he said. “For all the disagreements that we face, you remind us there’s something bigger than our differences, something that makes us one nation and one people. Regardless of color, regardless of creed, regardless of what part of the country we come from, regardless of what backgrounds we come out of, you remind us we’re one nation.”
That fact is why the American military is the most respected institution in the country, the president said.
The young men and women at Fort Bragg represent more than 1.5 million Americans who have served in Iraq. More than 30,000 Americans have physical wounds from the conflict with tens of thousands afflicted by unseen wounds like traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress.
“Nearly 4,500 Americans made the ultimate sacrifice, including 202 fallen heroes from here at Fort Bragg — 202,” Obama said. “So today we pause to say a prayer for all those families who’ve lost their loved ones, for they are part of our broader American family.”
This 9/11 generation has earned its place in history, the president said.
“Because of you, because you sacrificed so much for a people that you had never met, Iraqis have a chance to forge their own destiny,” he said. “That’s part of what makes us special as Americans. Unlike the old empires, we don’t make these sacrifices for territory or for resources; we do it because it’s right.
“There can be no fuller expression of America’s support for self-determination than our leaving Iraq to its people,” he added. “That says something about who we are.”
And U.S. service members in Afghanistan are taking on the Taliban and breaking the back of al-Qaida, the president said.
“Because of you, we’ve begun a transition to … the Afghans that will allow us to bring our troops home from there,” Obama said. “And around the globe, as we draw down in Iraq, we have gone after al-Qaida so that terrorists who threaten America will have no safe haven, and Osama bin Laden will never again walk the face of this Earth.”
Soon the last soldiers will leave Iraq, and the achievements of Americans who fought there will belong to history, the president said. He compared them to the men and women who fought for independence from Great Britain and who defeated fascism and communism. He also recalled the Civil War saying this generation, like the one that fought for union, has been “touched by fire.”
“All of you here today have lived through the fires of war,” Obama said. “You will be remembered for it. You will be honored for it, always. You have done something profound with your lives.”
Today’s service members enlisted during a time of war knowing that they’d be the ones who went into harm’s way, Obama said.
“When times were tough, you kept fighting. When there was no end in sight, you found light in the darkness,” the president said. “And years from now, your legacy will endure in the names of your fallen comrades etched on headstones at Arlington, and the quiet memorials across our country, in the whispered words of admiration as you march in parades, and in the freedom of our children and our grandchildren.”
And they will remember that they were touched by fire, and can be proud they answered the call, the president said.
“You served a cause greater than yourselves, you helped forge a just and lasting peace with Iraq and among all nations,” he said. “I could not be prouder of you, and America could not be prouder of you.”