(WASHINGTON) — President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama 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 Wednesday night.
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 the 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.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Laura Koran, CNN
Max Blau, Steve Almasy and Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
Stephen Collinson, CNN