Feb. 29, 2012 -- intro: President and Michelle Obama tonight will formally express the nation's gratitude for the thousands of Iraq War veterans with a state dinner in their honor at the White House.
The event, themed "A Nation's Gratitude," is the first of its kind to mark the end of a major war and comes just two and a half months after the last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq.
"A state dinner is the greatest honor a president can convey upon a head of state, and it was felt that the men and women who served in Iraq merited the same kind of honor and respect that you would give to a head of state," said Douglas Wilson, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs.
A hand-picked group of 78 service members selected proportionally from across all military branches, ranks and states will attend, officials say, joined by members of military families, Gold Star families, and wounded warriors.
While more than 1.5 million Americans served in Iraq during the nearly nine-year war, the mix of guests is meant to reflect and honor the diversity of the entire fighting force, officials said.
The dinner's limited size and profile is also seen as a nod to the nearly 100,000 U.S. troops still fighting in Afghanistan.
While some veterans and military advocates have called for a ticker-tape parade to celebrate the end of war in Iraq, Wilson said the White House dinner is merely a "first national recognition" of veterans' service, not a substitute for a formal parade.
"People here have said that they certainly support a national-level parade when the circumstances are appropriate to do so," he said.
ABC News' Bob Woodruff speaks exclusively with President Obama before tonight's dinner for an interview to air on "World News with Diane Sawyer" at 6:30 p.m. ET. He also interviews several veterans about their stories of service and sacrifice. Meet four of them here:
quicklist:1category: U.S. Marine Corps title: Staff Sgt. Eric Alva (Ret.) url: text:
Staff Sgt. Eric Alva and his Marine Corps unit were among the first to cross into Iraq from Kuwait during the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Three hours later, he became the first American wounded in the war.
Alva triggered a landmine when he stepped out of his vehicle during a rest stop near Basra, sustaining severe arm and leg injuries in the violent incident that catapulted him 15 feet from the blast. His right leg was later amputated.
The decorated 13-year veteran has since retired from the military, returning to college where he earned his bachelor's degree and a master's in social work. Alva was also a leading advocate for the repeal of the military's "don't ask don't tell" policy.
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quicklist:2category: U.S. Armytitle: Sgt. Sarah Adamsurl: text:
Sgt. Sarah Adams spent seven months in Iraq during 2007 treating the wounded as a medic on the front lines. And when Adams herself was struck and wounded, she demonstrated that her resolve could not be stopped.
"In July of 2007, I was hit by a 122 millimeter rocket; I then got up and treated a few soldiers," she told local ABC News affiliate KXXV.
The 28-year-old mother of two from Oregon has earned more than half a dozen awards for her service, including a Purple Heart. She is currently part of the 581st Area Support Medical Company based in Ft. Hood, Texas.
"I'm excited and nervous to meet the president, it's a big deal," she said of the state dinner. "I think more people are excited for me, like my mother. My kids think it's really neat."
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quicklist:3category: U.S. Air Forcetitle: Staff Sgt. J.H. Smithurl: text:
Staff Sgt. J.H. Smith, an air commando with the 4th Special Operations Squadron, earned his stripes early in Iraq during a heroic 2007 nighttime mission to support a team of U.S. Navy SEALs who had come under heavy enemy fire.
From their AC-130 gunship flying the skies above, Smith and his colleagues laid down a wall of gunfire that allowed the SEALs to evacuate their wounded and complete the mission, according to an account of the events provided by the Pentagon.
Smith, 31, received the Distinguished Flying Cross in 2008 for his heroism in the mission, in which 19 insurgents were killed. He has received eight other honors for his military service, which includes tours in Afghanistan.
The nine-year Air Force veteran from Georgia served six tours in Iraq between 2007 and 2011, totalling more than 390 days.
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quicklist:4category: U.S. Marine Corps title: Sgt. John-Mark Gladstoneurl: text:
John-Mark Gladstone was born and raised in Ghana, West Africa. But when terror attacks rocked the world on Sept. 11, 2001, America's fight became his fight, he said.
Gladstone immigrated to the United States in 2004 at age 17, and enlisted in the Marine Corps two years later.
He served two tours of duty in Iraq, first conducting combat and security patrols in Al Anbar province in 2007 and later as an administrative clerk at Camp Rawah, northwest of Baghdad, in 2009.
Gladstone became a U.S. citizen in 2008 and now directs Marine Corps staff at the Pentagon.
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