WASHINGTON – A small but star-studded ceremony today at Joint Base Andrews, Md., marked the return of U.S. Forces Iraq’s last troops.

President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter joined family members of about 30 returning service members to welcome those final few troops — including Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the last commander of U.S. Forces-Iraq — home.

Five days ago in Baghdad, Austin presided over the ceremony marking the end of the war in Iraq. Today, he said, “It is great to be back in the United States of America.”

Austin was part of the war’s first wave nearly nine years ago, in March 2003, when as the 3rd Infantry Division’s assistant commander for maneuver he ordered lead elements over the Kuwaiti border into Iraq.

From September 2010 until today, he oversaw what he called “one of the most extraordinary feats in our military’s history:” the end of mission and return of U.S. troops and equipment from Iraq.

For several months, U.S. troops have worked tirelessly to reposition what were then 50,000 service members and two million pieces of equipment remaining in Iraq, Austin noted.

“Sunday, the last of our troops crossed the border from Iraq to Kuwait, with their equipment,” he said. “They did it in an orderly fashion, they did it ahead of schedule.”

The military-led mission in Iraq has come to a successful conclusion, Austin said, and the safe return of USFI’s unit colors, “capably carried and passed on from commander to commander since 2003,” represents the commitment that “helped make this great day possible.”

“It is my privilege to represent them,” the general added. “I could not be more proud of our men and women in uniform, who are unquestionably the preeminent military force in the world.”?Austin credited Iraq veterans and their coalition partners with removing a brutal dictator, persevering through the darkest days of the insurgency, and providing the Iraqi people with opportunities for freedom “they have not seen in their lifetime.”

The general noted the team of State Department diplomats remaining in country to build on the United States’ strategic relationship with Iraq.

“Their professionalism and their spirit of teamwork were instrumental in making our interagency efforts so successful,” he added.

Austin thanked the families and friends of returning veterans for their love and support, and said the nation owes the families of the nearly 4,500 service members killed in Iraq “a debt of gratitude it can never repay.”

“Please know that we share in your loss, and that you will always be a part of our family,” he said.

Austin thanked the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, civilians and coalition partners who served in Iraq for “a job extremely well done.”

“I am truly humbled by your service and your many, many sacrifices,” he added.

Austin saluted those wounded in the Iraq war, noting their fighting spirit “serves as a source of inspiration for us, and you will always have a place in our formation.”

Austin offered wishes for “a very joyous holiday season” to all Iraq war veterans and their loved ones.?“Please know that your sacrifices were instrumental in liberating an oppressed people, in providing them an opportunity to enjoy a better way of life,” he said. “You have set the conditions for democracy to take root in a region that is critically important to the United States of America … again, thank you for a job extremely well done.”


Karen Parrish

American Forces Press Service