WASHINGTON — Six thousand miles and not too many years ago, this group of servicemembers sat scattered around Iraq, eating MREs out of the back of dusty Humvees.
On Wednesday night, 78 veterans of the nearly nine-year war put on their dress uniforms to dine on Yukon Gold potato croquettes and chocolate creme brulee off the White House’s blue china, joining a select few who have been honored with a formal state dinner by the president.
Attendees said they were humbled, even a little embarrassed by the lavish attention, the first time such an event has been held for returning military heroes.
But President Barack Obama instead called it a small “thank you” for the service and sacrifices of a generation of warriors whose mission in Iraq finally came to an end last year.
“This evening, we welcome not the statesmen who decide great questions of war and peace, but citizens: men and women from every corner of our country, every rank of our military, every branch of our service, who go to war, who defend the peace,” Obama said.
“In a culture that celebrates fame and fortune, yours are not household names. You’re something more — patriots who serve in our name.”
Pentagon leaders noted that the troops at the dinner stood as proxy for the more than 1 million servicemembers who deployed to Iraq, the more than 30,000 who were wounded there, and the 4,475 who never returned from the war.
The attendees were hand-picked by senior enlisted leaders to represent every state, service and demographic of the Iraq veteran population. Many attended wearing the valor medals they earned serving overseas. Some wore the scars of battle on their faces and limbs.
The exclusive ticket earned them and their guests a private tour of the White House, a chance to share stories with the military’s top brass, and a three-course gourmet meal complete with silverware more party-friendly than KA-BAR knives.
Service leaders bragged that the military wives’ gowns made a more impressive rainbow than last week’s Academy Awards’ red carpet outfits.
Army Chief Warrant Officer Nelson Visaya called the experience overwhelming. He has served three overseas combat tours in the last seven years. On Wednesday, he and his wife sat at the president’s right.
“I’m a soldier, I’m a simple guy. I just follow orders,” he said. “I’m here to do a job and I’m here to serve. I never dreamed of coming to the White House or meeting the president.”
Many of the attendees said while they appreciated the gesture of a state dinner, they also hope that larger, more inclusive commemorations are coming soon.
“I think it’s a good start. I think that there is some more celebration that needs to be made that needs to include more of the military,” said Maria Henderson, wife of Senior Chief Petty Officer Christopher Henderson, who served four tours in Iraq. “Being selected to represent who we were selected to represent is wonderful, but I think there needs to be something more for them to really … let them celebrate their accomplishment.”
Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Max Rohn, who lost his leg to an injury suffered in Fallujah, said he was attending the event not for himself, but to talk up the Marines he served with as a corpsman.
“I just hope the guys that I served with feel the honor that I do,” he said. “And hopefully down the line there’s a lot more occasions like this where everybody can go.”
Military officials promised there will be. Pentagon leaders have resisted plans for a New York City ticker-tape parade until combat operations finish in Afghanistan, but they are supporting smaller outreach efforts by communities to mark the end of the Iraq war and to embrace the troops who have returned home.
And top administration officials used the dinner to heap more praise on the legions of returned Iraq veterans. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that America “was built upon the service and sacrifice of people like you.”
Vice President Joe Biden called them “the finest generation of warriors in the history of this country,” if not all human history.
Obama offered a formal toast to launch the dinner, lauding “the country we love, the men and women who defend her, and to that faith — that fundamental American faith — that says no mission is too hard, no challenge is too great.
“Through tests and through trials we don’t simply endure, we are stronger than before, knowing that America’s greatest days are still to come,” he said. “And they are great because of you.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Jennifer Hlad contributed to this story.