Since 2003, American troops have fought, suffered, died, and built infrastructure in Iraq, in an effort to help create something the Iraqi people have never experienced: political freedom. It is up to the Iraqi people to do the rest now.
As of the end of this year, 2011, American troops will have left that country for good. 4,469 Americans died there, 30,871 were wounded in the effort to help free a people from a ruthless dictator. Our troops proved themselves at every step of the way. Their courage, their commitment, and their skills were proven at every turn, and we can be proud of them.
We have to be aware that there will be a great deal of political Monday-morning quarterbacking made public over the next few months, and much of it will be about the cost in life and treasure incurred during those eight years. There will be those who will paint the war in the dark colors of negativism. This is nothing new. It is a part of democratic dialogue and it must be respected, but only as one opinion among many. What must be held sacred, what must be forever respected, is the sacrifice, courage, and the commitment to duty that our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines modeled for us.
The military today is an all-volunteer force. They are not there because they have been drafted, forced to serve against their will. These military men and women went into service for many reasons. Some joined in response to the attacks of 9/11. Some went in because it was a temporary, economically valid thing to do, a way to get their educations paid for at that time in their lives. Others entered because they saw the nobility of making a career out of serving the nation. Many gained new skills. The skills learned by the modern soldier are not just the simple infantry skills of the past. Many learned technological skills that would translate into high-paying civilian jobs. As a former Hospital Corpsman who spent time with the Marines in Vietnam, I know that I could never match my skills with those being learned by Corpsmen and medics today.
More than anything, those who have served have also gained other things that are not as measurable, but are more important: maturity, self-discipline, personal character, and the ability to delay gratification and to take responsibility for their actions and their words. These realities alone would make them some of the most valuable potential employees any employer would want or need to hire. Yes, you can always find examples of those who fell short of these ideals, but they are a small minority of our military veterans.
Today's veterans know the demands of endurance and commitment that life often presents to us. They know how to confront difficulties with creativity, and dogged optimism. They have gone to the border between life and death and returned to us. Yes, some have been severely wounded. Yes, some suffer the ravages of PTSD, but given time and our care, they will be stronger individuals. They will bring a perspective on the preciousness of life to all that they do.
One of our wars is drawing down, and we hope the next will follow close behind, but we are proud of those who served selflessly on our behalf. As these brave men and women come home we need to be ready to serve them. What do we need to do now? We need to be creative and to develop our economy again in order to provide jobs for them. We need to be ready to support them in their dreams, to help them become productive members of the renewed economy.
While we can celebrate the end of our Iraq involvement, we must never forget that we will still have to be engaged with the return and reentry of our veterans. It is our turn to serve them, to thank them for their long-suffering service to the nation.