By Nancy Benac
WASHINGTON — 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.