By Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone Marshall Jr.
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a White House tribute to Iraq War veterans and their families Feb. 29 to honor them for their service, sacrifice and commitment to the nation.
Among the invitees: the 21st Space Wing’s own Senior Master Sgt. Donnie Bolton, 21st Security Forces Squadron operations superintendent.
“I was shocked at first, then felt great excitement,” Bolton said. “It was definitely an honor to be representing the men and women of the Air Force who have served in Iraq.”
Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, along with senior officials from all branches of service joined the president and the first lady at an event dubbed “A Nation’s Gratitude: Honoring Those Who Served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn.”
Bolton sat at a table with Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Chief of Staff for the Air Force, and Schwartz’s wife Suzie.
“We were in the middle of the room and I was able to meet Leon Panetta (secretary of defense), Vice President Biden, and President and Mrs. Obama while at the dinner,” Bolton said.
“My wife and I were in awe,” he said. “We had unrestricted access to a number of the rooms, like the red, blue and green rooms and the china room. It was a very cool once in a lifetime experience.”
Airmen representing nine states from throughout the United States were honored at the dinner for their service in Iraq. “The opportunity to meet other members from other branches of service and hear their personal sacrifices is an honor,” said Master Sgt. Kevin T. Bullivant, an explosive ordnance disposal NCO assigned to the 151st Air Refueling Wing, an Air National Guard unit in Salt Lake City, Utah. “I am also proud to represent the explosive ordnance disposal community and share some of the sacrifices that fellow EOD technicians have endured.”
Other Airmen representing their states included Maj. Erik J. Jacobson, from Nevada; Master Sgt. Shane A. Lacaillade, representing Missouri; Tech. Sgt. Cristian Bennett, representing Wisconsin; Master Sgt. Jessica Coombs, representing Michigan; Staff Sgt. J.H. Smith, representing Georgia; Master Sgt. Jeremy Coombs, from Maine and Staff Sgt. Andrew Piiainen, another EOD technician, representing Massachusetts. Bolton represented Illinois.
“In one of our nation’s longest wars, you wrote one of the most extraordinary chapters in American military history,” Obama told the more than five dozen Iraq veterans and their guests. “Now, the Iraqi people have a chance to forge their own destiny, and every one of you who served there can take pride in knowing you gave the Iraqis that opportunity — that you succeeded in your mission.”
The vice president lauded service members for their ability to adapt to challenges, the capture of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the opportunity they gave the people of Iraq to have a self-governing, self-sufficient nation.
“You’re incredible. You adapted, you succeeded and you defeated,” Biden said. “You defeated a tyrant, (and) you beat back violent extremists. And the most remarkable thing you did, because of the breadth of your capability, you enabled a country that had not been governed in any reasonable way for over four decades, you actually helped them set up institutions and train a military and a civilian corps that gives them a real fighting chance.”
Panetta expressed his gratitude to all in attendance as well as the million-plus service members they represented for fulfilling their duties, for their dedication and for their service to the nation.
“To all who fought in Iraq, we thank you for your service,” he said. “You’ve earned our nation’s everlasting gratitude. We are indebted to you for your willingness to fight (and) your willingness to sacrifice for your country.
“We are (also) indebted to your families and your loved ones for the sacrifices that they made so that their loved ones could help defend this nation,” Panetta said.
The chairman, who was first to speak, thanked the president and first lady for paying tribute to veterans and families of the Iraq War.
“Mr. President, Mrs. Obama, thank you for recognizing the service and sacrifice of the military family in this very special way,” he said. “We really appreciate the support that you, the vice president and Dr. Biden, and those that they bound together in the ‘Joining Forces’ initiative and the nation provide us.”
The first lady and Dr. Biden have championed the Joining Forces effort, which seeks to mobilize tangible support for service members and their families in all sectors of American society.
Just before dinner began, the president emphasized how proud he is of the U.S. military for working together to achieve success in Iraq.
“As your commander in chief, I could not be more proud of you,” Obama said. “As an American, as a husband and father of two daughters, I could not be more grateful for your example (of) the kind of country we can be, (and) for what we can achieve when we stick together.”
Obama paid tribute to “courageous” troops who served despite the likelihood of being sent into harm’s way and to fallen service members and their families.
“You taught us about sacrifice — a love of country so deep, so profound, you’re willing to give your life for it,” he said. “Tonight, we pay solemn tribute to all who did.”
Obama recalled five service members who were the first casualties of the Iraq War, and the last U.S. casualty there, who was killed Nov. 14.
“Separated by nearly nine years, they are bound for all time among the nearly 4,500 American patriots who gave all that they had to give,” the president said. “To their families, including the Gold Star families here tonight, know that we will never forget their sacrifice, and that your loved ones live on in the soul of our nation, now and forever.”