WASHINGTON (AP) — With a formal dinner for the few, President Barack Obama on Wednesday paid solemn tribute to the many.
The president who opposed the Iraq war from its outset thanked those who fought its battles by sitting down to a candlelit meal with a small cross section of the million-plus who served there over the past nine years.
Looking out over a sea of dress uniforms sparkling with medals attesting to years of wartime strife, Obama told the gathering: "In a culture that celebrates fame and fortune, yours are not necessarily household names. You are something more: the patriots who served in our name. And after nearly nine years in Iraq, tonight is an opportunity to express our gratitude and to say once more, welcome home."
The faces of war were reflected in the 200 veterans and their guests who gathered in the East Room to dine on aged rib-eye steak, potato croquettes and chocolate crème brulee. They came from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories, and spanned generations, gender and all five branches of the military.
There was a 24-year-old sailor from Colorado, Petty Officer 3rd Class Max R. Rohn, who spent just five months in Iraq before losing part of his right leg in a blast. There was a 31-year-old Air Force sergeant from Georgia, J.H. Smith, who deployed to Iraq six times in five years and won the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The first person injured in the war, Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva of Texas, also was there. Alva, 41, had a leg amputated after stepping on a land mine just hours after the war began in 2003. He later revealed that he was gay and became a prominent advocate for ending the military's ban on openly gay service members.
Seated prominently at Michelle Obama's side was Kim Felts of Fayetteville, N.C. Her husband, Army Col. Thomas H. Felts, 45, spent more than two decades in the military but had never served in combat before he volunteered to go to Iraq. He died in 2006 when a bomb exploded near his vehicle in Baghdad.
In all, nearly 4,500 Americans died in the Iraq war.
The president paid tribute to all those assembled — service members and loved ones alike — for their sacrifice and devotion to country, comrades and family. Taking note of Vietnam veterans who often didn't get the recognition they deserved, Obama said, "That's a mistake that we must never repeat."
At a reception before the dinner, guests traded war stories and compared notes on their deployments.
"It's neat to see the broad swath that the military cuts through our society," said Army Lt. Col. Beth Behn, who served two tours in Iraq.
Felts, who brought along two of her four children, said the dinner was a fitting way to remember her husband, who "always enjoyed a good celebration." She also cast the dinner as an apt way to express the nation's thanks to Iraq veterans at a time when other American troops — about 89,000 — still are in harm's way in Afghanistan.
"It's a pretty grand affair, in my opinion," she said, adding that bigger events would be appropriate once all the service members are home from Afghanistan.
But some veterans already are pushing for a more expansive national expression of gratitude.
"One meal isn't nearly enough to extend the entire nation's gratitude," said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "Across the country, millions of Americans want to join the president and first lady in thanking Iraq veterans and their families."
Rieckhoff said in a written statement he was giving his seat at the dinner to Iraq veteran Angela Peacock, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after the war and recently helped lead veterans in a big welcome-home parade in St. Louis.
The veterans' group has issued an open letter calling on the president to designate a National Day of Action to honor Iraq veterans with special events around the country.
The Pentagon, for its part, says it would be inappropriate to have a big national-level event like a parade when so many still are serving in combat operations in Afghanistan. Many of those just home from Iraq no doubt will turn around and go to Afghanistan before combat there wraps up at the end of 2014.
In all, 2.38 million Americans have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars so far. More than 1 million have deployed more than once.
Marine Sgt. Maj. Bryan Battaglia, the senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said communities around the nation already are finding ways to thank the troops, and expressed hope the White House dinner "will only catapult other communities and townships to conduct their individual celebrations."
As for a national-scale event, he said, "would we really want troops overseas still engaged in the defense of our nation in the quantity that they are now, and celebrate back here?"
The closest historical parallel to Wednesday's black-tie dinner was Richard Nixon's gala honoring former Vietnam POWs in 1973. That was a much more extravagant event, the largest sit-down dinner in White House history. About 1,300 guests filled a huge red-and-yellow striped tent on the South Lawn for dinner and entertainment by Bob Hope, John Wayne, Sammy Davis Jr., Irving Berlin and other celebrities.
Veterans had the run of Nixon's White House, even posing for pictures on the bed in the Lincoln Bedroom. The day also gave a personal boost to Nixon, then under the cloud of the Watergate investigation.
Obama, for his part, has missed no opportunity to celebrate the end of an unpopular war, with frequent speeches, visits to troops and promises to ensure favorable treatment for returning veterans.
In the process, he has been able to underscore that the war ended on his watch — just as candidate Obama had promised.