Obama to troops: "Welcome home"

President Barack Obama, accompanied by first lady Michelle Obama, speaks to troops at Fort Bragg, N.C., Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011.
AP Photo/Gerry Broome

In Wednesday remarks marking the forthcoming end of the Iraq war, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama welcomed home U.S. troops from Iraq, thanking them for their service and pledging continued repayment for their services.

"As your Commander in Chief, and on behalf of a grateful nation, I'm proud to finally say these two words - and I know your families agree: Welcome home," said Mr. Obama, speaking at Fort Bragg military base in North Carolina. "Welcome home. Welcome home. Welcome home."

The president honored sacrifices made by military service members and their families over the course of the nearly nine-year-long war, and told troops that Americans "have a responsibility to learn from your service."

"You know too well the heavy costs of this war," Mr. Obama said. "More than 1.5 million Americans have served in Iraq. Over 30,000 Americans have been wounded - and those are only the wounds that show... Nearly 4,500 Americans made the ultimate sacrifice, including 202 fallen heroes from here at Fort Bragg."

"Today we pause to say a prayer to all those families who lost their loved ones," he said.

Mr. Obama has made several appearances this week lauding the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, which - per his campaign promise - will be effectively complete by the end of the year. On Monday, the president met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to discuss the strategic relationship between the two countries.

Mr. Obama's decision to end the war, which is in keeping with a timetable first put in place under former President George W. Bush, has been popular with the American people, with even one in two Republicans saying they approve of his handling of the issue.

Still, the U.S. troop withdrawal comes at a time when the extent to which Iraq will be able to maintain its security and a health political system remains unclear - particularly with Iran seeking to expand its influence in Iraq and in the region as a whole.

"Iraq's not a perfect place," Mr. Obama allowed. "It has many challenges ahead - but we're leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-relying Iraq."

"We knew this day would come," the president continued. "We've known it for some time... But still, there is something profound about the end of a war that has lasted so long. Nine years ago, American troops were preparing to deploy to the Persian Gulf in the possibility that they would be sent to war. Many of you were in grade school. I was a state Senator."

But, he said, despite the "twists and turns" and "controversy" surrounding the war - which Mr. Obama opposed vehemently before assuming the presidency - "there was one constant."

"Your patriotism. Your commitment to fulfill your mission. Your abiding commitment to one another. That was constant. That did not change. That did not waver," he said.

"It's harder to end a war than begin one," he said. "Indeed, everything that American troops have done in Iraq, all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building and the training and the partnering, all of it has led to this moment of success."

For that, the president pledged to repay troops.

"Part of ending a war responsibly is standing by those who fought it," he said. "It's not enough to honor you with words. Words are cheap. We must do it with deeds. You stood up for America; America needs to stand up with you. That's why as your Commander in Chief I am committed to making sure that you get the care and the benefits and the opportunities that you've earned."

In November, marking a rare moment of congressional bipartisanship, Mr. Obama signed a bill aimed at getting unemployed veterans back to work. The bill offers tax credits to businesses for hiring unemployed veterans, and repeals a 2006 law that, as of 2012, would have required federal, state, and local governments to withhold three percent of payments to contractors.

"The 9/11 generation has earned your place in history - because of you, because you sacrificed so much for a people you had never met, Iraqis have a chance to forge their own destiny," he said.

"All of you here today have lived though the fires of war. You will be remembered for it. You will be honored for it. Always. You have done something profound with your lives... You served a cause greater than yourselves," he continued. "I could not be prouder of you. And America could not be prouder of you."