Behind the Scenes at the White House’s ‘A Nation’s Gratitude’ Dinner

Feb 29, 2012 11:51pm

A Washington first: A state-style dinner titled A Nation’s Gratitude to celebrate the men and woman who fought bravely in Iraq.

On Wednesday ABC News’ Bob Woodruff, who himself was injured in a roadside bomb during his seventh trip to Iraq, was invited to the White House for an exclusive interview with President Obama.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Obama told ABC News’ Bob Woodruff just hours before the dinner. “But my criteria in any decision I make, getting recommendations from folks who are actually on the ground, is what is going to best protect our folks and make sure that they can accomplish their mission.”

President Obama said his formal apology to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the burning of Korans by U.S. troops last week has “calmed things down” after the incident sparked an outbreak of violence across the country.

But this interview with President Obama almost didn’t happen.

A storm front coming in from the west was grounding flights going to DC. Producer Lana Zak was on an early morning flight and just made it ahead of the storm. Woodruff wasn’t so lucky.

After an hour delay, Woodruff’s flight was cancelled. Jumping on a train, he arrived in D.C. only 40 minutes before standing face-to-face with the most powerful man in the world.

“Honestly, how many people are LATE to interview the President?” Woodruff said as he rushed up to the secret service booth located outside the gates of the white house.

Less than an hour later, the interview was over and the main event was just beginning.

The dinner celebrating a Nation’s Gratitude brought together 78 Iraq veterans and their guests into the White House’s East Room, usually the site of dinners for foreign heads of state.

Tonight the U.S. took center stage, with members from every branch of the military donning their dress uniforms — a sea of medals.

The evening began with a speech from Obama, who commented on how every member had honorably completed their mission.

The veterans were joined by top military brass, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, in addition to the president, first lady, Vice President Biden, and Dr. Jill Biden.

“Everyone had a story about what they saw and what they lived through,” Woodruff said. “Some of them injured some of them not, but I think people were really moved they were invited.”

Many of the veterans said that they were representing the thousands that couldn’t be there.

“Each one of us represents about 12,000 men and women who served. So not only do you think about those individuals that served in Iraq, but you think about our families, you think about the aunts, uncles, mothers, fathers — our brothers, sisters. So, it is. It’s very humbling,” Frank Morneau, a U.S. Navy Rear Admiral said.

Sitting next to Woodruff was a member of the Coast Guard who kept his close friend and brother in battle who died in Iraq close.

“He had a picture right on the table in front of him, a reminder,” Woodruff said.

Dinner consisted of a salad of heirloom tomatoes, Rib Eye, with a chocolate crème brulee for dessert. All served on The Wilson white house china — blue and gold with the seal of the president in the center, and the first set to be made in America.

At the end of the night Obama thanked everyone for coming, and joked that his table was the most fun, and added that he is not being able to get everyone extra dessert. Two military members sitting with the president got seconds of the chocolate crème brulee, a perk as he described it because they had the Commander in Chief at their table.

ABC News’ Devin Dwyer contributed to this report.

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