The Obama administration honored veterans of the war in Iraq including a Marine who was the first U.S. fighter wounded in the country, an Air Force staff sergeant who served six tours and a gay female Army officer.
Among the 200 guests invited to a White House dinner yesterday were service members from each branch of the military, veterans and families of those who died in combat. The guest list included people from every state and service members who suffered traumatic brain injuries and amputations.
“Support us -- we do a good job,” Marine Corporal Steven Schulz, 27, of Texas, said he would tell President Barack Obama if he got the chance. Schulz, who attended the dinner with his mother, Debbie Schulz, and his seeing-eye dog Sonny, was among the more than 32,000 wounded in the war. The first was Marine Staff Sergeant Eric Alva of Texas.
Obama told attendees that America’s failure at times to properly honor veterans returning from Vietnam was “a mistake we must never repeat.” He said that the troops who served in Iraq “taught us a lesson about the character of our country.”
“You persevered tour after tour, year after year,” he said. “In your resilience, we see the essence of America.”
The U.S. war in Iraq that began in March 2003 ended officially on Dec. 15, 2011. More than 1 million Americans served in Iraq during that time, with almost 4,500 American deaths, according to Pentagon figures.
The event reinforced the message that American communities must continue supporting veterans who fought in the wars, said Doug Wilson, a Defense Department spokesman. Obama last year started an initiative to encourage private companies to train or hire 100,000 post-Sept. 11, 2001, veterans or their spouses.
The guest list was compiled by the senior enlisted members of each military service, according to Wilson.
Alva, who lost his leg after he stepped on a land mine near Basra, has since earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work.
Schulz received the Purple Heart on his second deployment to Iraq in 2005 as a lance corporal, after his Humvee hit a roadside bomb near Fallujah that left him with severe traumatic brain injury and blinded him in the right eye.
Their community of Friendswood, Texas, south of Houston have provided “amazing” support to Steven, his mother said in an interview at a pre-dinner reception in Arlington, Virginia. That included a new house with help from a Rotary Club and a program called Helping a Hero, Steven said.
“The severely injured get a lot of recognition from communities,” Debbie Schulz said. “If they could transfer to the non-injured veterans the same love and support, that would be even better.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also spoke at the event, expressing thanks for the veterans’ service.
“You’ve earned our nation’s everlasting gratitude,” Panetta said. He said it is now the nation’s responsibility “to embrace your return, to welcome you back” and give returning service members the support they deserve.
At least two of the war veterans in attendance represented an Obama policy victory -- last year’s repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” prohibition against homosexuals serving openly in the military.
‘Reap the Benefits’
Alva in 2007 publicly revealed he was gay and campaigned to repeal the policy. He attended the dinner with his partner Dustin L. Jones of Arlington, Virginia.
Lieutenant Colonel Beth Behn, 39, of Iowa, with 17 years of Army service, said she is “happy to reap the benefits” of the repeal. She attended with her partner of 13 years, Julie Shappy, 43. They have a 4 1/2-year-old son and a 22-month-old daughter.
“This is the first formal event that she’s been able to attend,” Behn said of Shappy in an interview. “I think this is a nice tribute to Iraq veterans and their families.”