WASHINGTON — Richard Nixon threw a huge gala for former Vietnam POWs. Harry Truman cheered at multiple parades honoring veterans of World War II. Andrew Johnson presided over the pageantry of a two-day review of Union troops at the end of the Civil War.
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Now President Barack Obama is honoring the more than 1 million American troops who served in Iraq by welcoming a small cross-section to a formal dinner at the White House on Wednesday night. The dinner for 200 – about half military personnel or veterans and the rest their guests – will include service members from all 50 states and the U.S. territories.
Some are in their 20s; some in their 50s. One served just months in Iraq; one was deployed six times. Some left the military with life-altering wounds; most still serve. A widow will represent the loved ones of the nearly 4,500 Americans who died.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president had invited the Iraq veterans to the East Room dinner “to note the remarkable accomplishments and sacrifice of the men and women” who served in a long and difficult war.
The president, who called the war dumb and rash before it began, has missed no opportunity to celebrate its end, with frequent speeches, visits to troops and promises to ensure favorable treatment for returning veterans. In the process, he is able to underscore that the unpopular war ended on his watch – just as candidate Obama had promised.
Among those invited to Wednesday’s dinner was retired Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, the first American to be injured in Iraq. Alva, 41, had a leg amputated after stepping on a land mine just hours after the war began. Alva said the dinner was a fitting way for the administration to recognize those who served in Iraq at a time when tens of thousands still are serving in Afghanistan.
“We’ve learned from our mistakes in Vietnam,” said Alva, adding that his father received no recognition when he returned home from serving in Vietnam.
Some service members believe something more expansive is warranted to recognize those who served in Iraq.
Jason Hansman, who served in Iraq in 2004-05 and now works for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, will be at the dinner and calls it “a good first step,” but says more should be done. He’s bringing as his guest retired Army Sgt. Alice Peacock, who helped organize a huge welcome-home parade in St. Louis in January. IAVA is calling on the president to designate a National Day of Action to honor Iraq veterans with special events all 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 in harm’s way in Afghanistan.
Wednesday’s White House dinner will be an exclusive black-tie affair, but low-key when measured against the lavish dinner Nixon threw for former POWs in 1973. That event drew about 1,300 guests to 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.
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