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Iraq End of Mission / Return of the Colors

Prepared Remarks by Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter, Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, Tuesday, December 20, 2011

President Obama, Vice President Biden, Chairman and Mrs. Dempsey, General and Mrs. Austin, Command Sergeant Major Allen, Sergeant Major and Mrs. Battaglia, Distinguished Guests.

Today is an historic day, as we commemorate the return of the colors under which our Armed Forces fought so ably and proudly in Iraq, and mark the end of the second-longest war in U.S. history.

Those of you who have arrived this morning bearing the flag of U.S. Forces–Iraq represent all those who served: active duty, reserve, National Guard, and civilians.

 We who greet you here at Andrews represent a grateful nation.   We welcome you, we are proud of you, and we are in your debt.  As the President has so eloquently said, “Your service belongs to the ages.”

To the families of the 4,500 troops who made the ultimate sacrifice, to the more than 30,000 troops that bear the wounds of this war, and to their families: we lack the words to say what you feel on this day because try as we may, we can never fully know it.  But we doknow what your sacrifice means to us, to this nation, and to a world that still depends so much on America for its security.

This was a war that asked American troops to be great warriors and also much more—trainers, development experts, road-builders, and, ultimately, partners in helping the Iraqi people build a better and more hopeful future.

To be sure, there will be many tests for Iraq in the days ahead.  But you have given the Iraqi people a true NEW DAWN, and as their morning light spreads, we will stand with them.

And just as the President, Secretary Panetta, and the Chairman pledged to stand with the Iraqi people after U.S. combat troops have departed Iraq, so too have they pledged to take care of the troops returning home.

Over the course of the next weeks and months, thousands of men and women who served so superbly in Iraq will begin a new chapter of their lives.  Some will go to college on the post-9/11 GI Bill; many others will seek to enter or reenter the workforce.

Last week, at Fort Bragg, the President underscored our commitment to help our veterans successfully make this transition home.  As he said, "After years of rebuilding Iraq, we want to enlist our veterans in the work of rebuilding America."

On behalf of Secretary Panetta, I want you to know that this Department, in partnership with agencies across the federal government, will do everything in our power to make good on that promise.

For nearly nine years, you answered America's call.  It is now America's turn to answer yours.

General Austin (Lloyd), I admit to some nostalgia about not seeing your head fill the teleconference screen anymore as you give the Secretary of Defense his Iraq updates.  And ladies and gentlemen, his head does fill the screen.  You did a truly remarkable job of drawing down this massive force, performing a logistics miracle, doing so safely, and leaving behind all the ingredients of continuing success.

I look forward to your joining Secretary McHugh and General Odierno in your new role as Vice Chief of Staff of the Army.  Together you will help guide the Army into the future, drawing upon the proud accomplishments of the past decade, remembering that we are still at war in Afghanistan, and building the best Army there is to confront the conflicts of tomorrow.

We cannot know with certainty what challenges history has in store for us.  That is why, as we review our military strategy in this moment of transition, President Obama, Secretary Panetta, and Chairman Dempsey insist that we must continue to have the world’s best military, flexible, ready, and capable of accomplishing any mission.  And that is why, as we prepare our budget, Chairman Dempsey has urged that we keep our eyes firmly fixed on the Joint Force we will need in 2020.

He should know.  He was with us in Iraq during the war’s brightest and darkest hours, from the very beginning of OPERATION DESERT STORM to the very end of OPERATION NEW DAWN.  It is fitting, Chairman, that you should be here today.

And now, it is my great pleasure to introduce the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey.

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