As President Obama spoke, Violeta Sifuentes snuggled with her 6-year-old twins on the suede sofa – Samuel beside her, Selena sprawled across her legs. When the 29-year-old Army captain explained what the president meant by combat operations in Iraq being over, “Nina” let out a loud, “Woo-hoo!” then asked, “Can we go play now?”
Sifuentes had heard essentially the same thing earlier Tuesday, when the commander in chief visited Fort Bliss, Texas. He had shaken her hand, hugged her, thanked her personally for her service.
But seeing it on TV brought tears to Sifuentes’ eyes.
“Now that he said it to the American people, it felt real,” she said. “It was a good feeling to hear him say whether or not people agree with the wars, that it’s about the men and women who are serving.”
The president had said that his Oval Office address would be no victory speech, that there would be no banners declaring “mission accomplished.” He marked the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom Tuesday by noting that we lived in an “age without surrender ceremonies,” and that was just fine with many who fought and bled in that war.
Steve Baskis, 24, of Glen Ellyn, Ill., lost his sight and full use of his arms in a May 2008 explosion in Baghdad that killed one of the men in his armored vehicle. Listening to the president’s speech in a living room filled with beach wedding photos he can no longer see, the former Army specialist appreciated the president’s words of support and praise, even though much still needs done.
“I’m just glad we’re in a total transition now,” Baskis said, snapping the fingers on his nerve-damaged right hand. “I think that for my buddy who died and all the ones who lost their lives, I think it would mean a lot to them.”
Carla Milledge liked what the president was saying.
“I wish it would have ended three years ago,” the 61-year-old Glenwood, Iowa, woman said. “Because my son might be here,”
Army Sgt. Joseph Milledge, 23, the youngest of her five children, was serving his second tour when he was killed by a roadside bomb Oct. 5, 2007, in Baghdad. His mother hopes the president’s words mean no other mother will have to suffer as she has.
“I think the job is done, and it’s time to bring the boys home,” she said. “It’s caused a lot of psychological problems, broken up a lot of families and caused a lot of heartache.”
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As a newly minted second lieutenant in 2003, Jason Crow didn’t have much time to think about whether invading Iraq was a good idea.
“The only thing I was thinking about was accomplishing the mission and getting my men home alive,” said Crow, 31, now a lawyer practicing in Denver.
Crow has “very mixed feelings” about the war. “We’ve all lost friends, comrades in the war. We’ve lost some of our finest men and women. We’ve spent close to a trillion dollars.”
But Crow thinks the president did as much as he could to turn the page on this difficult chapter.
“His role was to give both the active duty military and veterans and the American people as close to a sense of closure in this period of American history, as respect to Iraq, as is possible, and I think he did a good job of that,” said Crow, who was in Washington for a legal conference and watched the speech in a hotel room just a few blocks from the White House.
Retired Army Staff Sgt. Chris Bain, 39, of Williamsport, Pa., had been expecting this kind of announcement for a while. What he didn’t expect was to hear the man who had campaigned so fiercely against the war – and President George W. Bush’s troop “surge” in Iraq – speak in such conciliatory terms about his predecessor.
“All the things we did for the surge, it all worked, and we were successful at it,” said Bain, who was nearly killed in an April 2004 ambush near Al-Taji, Iraq. “And I hope we can do those things in Afghanistan.”
Still, some feel the president is fooling himself if he thinks things have really changed for troops in Iraq.
Framed pictures of the first family mirrored those above Shawn Delgado’s mantel in his home in Pataskala, Ohio. Delgado, a 40-year-old retired Marine who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, took notes as the president spoke.
“I don’t care how you slice it. It’s still a combat mission,” Delgado said after the image of the president made way for the cast of “Glee.”
“Any of those guys that get hurt while they’re over there, would they not rate a Purple Heart?”
The air in the American Legion lounge in Hinesville, Ga., was also heavy with skepticism. Bartender Lacey Russell switched the television from the Weather Channel to Obama’s speech, only to get buffeted by howls of protest from grizzled regulars happily ignoring the “No Vulgar Language” sign beside the TV.
“You want to see it?” one of Russell’s patrons cried out incredulously.
“Yes,” the 23-year-old bartender shot back. “I’d like to know if my husband is going back to Iraq.”
Obama’s not very popular in this die-hard military community. Those sipping Budweiser and Jack Daniels either turned their attention to the Atlanta Braves game on the TV at the opposite end of the bar, or kept up their bellyaching at seeing an Obama speech at their watering hole.
“This is not a political bar! Not the American Legion!” one barfly howled.
“All I can say is, go Bush!” another shouted.
Russell finally gave up and changed the channel.
“For my own selfish reasons, to keep my husband home, I’m going to say it’s good,” Russell said during a cigarette break outside. “Do I agree that we’re going to leave and everybody there will be great, like America? No. They’ve been fighting each other since Jesus.”
The president said his pronouncement was a milestone, a turning point. But this was not a date Kirk Morris planned to put down in a calendar for future celebrations.
The Gurnee, Ill., man sat emotionless as the president spoke. Draped over the couch beside him was a quilt made from his son Geoffrey’s old clothes, including some bits of camouflage.
Marine Pvt. Geoffrey Morris was just 19 when a rocket-propelled grenade ended his life in 2004. It was the fifth anniversary of his mother’s death.
Kirk Morris, 52, scoffed when Obama segued from the war in Iraq to his efforts to jump-start the economy. Whatever he thinks of the president’s fiscal policies, Morris has to believe that his son died for a worthy cause.
“The sacrifices of my son and 4,000 others was an opportunity for that country to be a beacon of hope in the region,” he said.
Morris’s youngest son, Dylan, 12, says he wants to join the Marines. The father worries that we will still be at war in the Middle East, and it is only then that his voice begins to crack.
“He’s gonna be a darn, darn good Marine,” he said. “But serving in our armed forces is a dangerous, dangerous business.”