White House Plans Formal Dinner for Iraq War Vets

(Credit: Charles Dharapak/AP Photo)

President Obama will host a black-tie, state-dinner-style event at the White House to honor Iraq War veterans, administration officials announced today.

"It's really focused on the men and women who served in Iraq, in all stations within the armed services," said White House press secretary Jay Carney.  The celebration will occur Feb. 29, two and a half months after the last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq.

The evening will be themed "A Nation's Gratitude" and is believed to be the first such event of its kind at the White House to mark the end of a major war.

"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 roughly 200 attendees selected proportionally from across all service branches, ranks and states are expected to attend, Wilson said. Military families, Gold Star families, wounded warriors will also attend.

"The East Room on the evening of Feb. 29 will look like the Americans that served in Iraq," he said.

The event's muted profile and selectivity of guests (more than 1 million Americas served in Iraq) is a nod to the nearly 100,000 U.S. troops still fighting in Afghanistan. Officials have previously cited the troops still fighting there as reason not to hold a traditional ticker-tape parade.

"I think a parade would be premature while we still have so many troops in harm's way around the world," New York City Mayor  Michael Bloomberg told WOR Radio last month.

Still, some veterans groups and advocates have pressed for a parade in New York City or Washington, D.C., and launched an online petition drive to make the case to the president.

"Getting Super Bowl-champ football players a parade in their hometowns is never an issue. But Iraq War veterans? They deserve a little praise, too," said Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America president Paul Reickhoff in  a blog post. "They answered our country's call, and in the least, they survived. But for some reason, they're running into all kinds of resistance."

Late last month, St. Louis became the first U.S. city to throw a parade for returned Iraq War veterans - an event that drew more than 100,000, who lined the streets to show their support, according to organizers.

Veterans groups in  10 other cities, including Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Seattle are said to be considering hosting similar events.

More than 1.5 million Americans fought in the nearly nine-year war that cost an estimated $800 billion. The fighting left almost 4,500 Americans dead, 32,000 wounded and an estimated 100,000 Iraqis killed.

About 90,000 U.S. troops are still fighting in Afghanistan.

"That doesn't mean our country can't start welcoming home those who have already returned and pave the way for those still to come," Reichkoff said. "It will also show our troops in Afghanistan now that they won't be forgotten when that war ends too."

Wilson said the White House dinner would be a "first, national recognition" of the nation's gratitude but 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.

This post has been updated from an earlier version.