Marking the end of "one of the most extraordinary chapters in the history of the American military," President Obama today hailed the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and thanked troops for their sacrifices in a conflict he opposed from the beginning.
"For all of the challenges that our nation faces, you remind us that there's nothing that we Americans can't do when we stick together," Obama told troops at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. "For all of the disagreements that we face, you remind us that there is something bigger than our differences that makes us one nation, one people."
The president has spent the week saying a long goodbye to the war he once described as "dumb." After nearly nine years of conflict, Obama today made clear, "it is harder to end a war than to begin one."
"Our effort in Iraq has taken many twists and turns. It was a source of great controversy here at home, with patriots on both sides of the debate. But the one constant was your patriotism; your commitment to fulfill your mission; and your abiding commitment to one another," the president said.
Obama's speech today culminates a series of events heralding the end of the war, as the president seeks to gain traction with the U.S. public for his foreign policy successes. The president welcomed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to the White House earlier this week to discuss the future of the U.S.-Iraq relationship and previewed his address today in a series of interviews with local television stations in areas with large military communities.
"We are ending a war not with a final battle, but with a final march toward home," Obama told service members in his first visit as president to Fort Bragg, home to Army Special Operations and the 82nd Airborne, among others. "This is an extraordinary achievement, nearly nine years in the making. And today, we remember everything that you did to make it possible. … Hard work and sacrifice. Those words only begin to describe the cost of this war, and the courage of the men and women who have fought it. We know well the heavy cost of this war."
The war in Iraq has claimed the lives of more than 4,400 U.S. troops, including 202 service members from Fort Bragg, and wounded more than 32,000.
Obama said the numbers "do not tell the full story of the Iraq War, not even close." In addition to the skill and bravery of the soldiers and civilians who served, the president noted the many sacrifices of military families.
The president made clear that while the war is ending, support for service members and their families must continue. "Part ending a war responsibly is standing by those who have fought it. It's not enough to honor you with words; we must do so with deeds," he said.
The majority of Americans support ending the war and troops at Fort Bragg are happy to be home. "It feels good," Army Sgt. Daniel Dickerson said. "We don't need to be there anymore. So we should be pulling out by now. We should have pulled out a long time ago."
Others expressed apprehension about the future in Iraq. "My major concern is, we pull out and whether they're going to be able to stand strong on their own two feet government wise," Army Sgt. Amber Simons said. "Also, what's going to happen to the people. Some of them don't know which way to go. Oh, I'm really afraid. So, where they stand on the U.S., my concern is just the people. They've been at war for so long."
Going forward, the United States will maintain a diplomatic presence inside Iraq, including roughly 16,000 people working in the embassy in Baghdad, but all troops will come and all military bases will close Dec. 31.
"Of course," Obama said, "Iraq is not a perfect place. But we are leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people. We are building a new partnership between our nations. And we are ending a war not with a final battle, but with a final march toward home.
"Because of you; because you sacrificed, so much for a people that you had never met, Iraqis have a chance to forge their own destiny."