The event is “the beginning of a ‘thank you’ ” and is to honor all of the more than 1 million American military men and women who served in Iraq from 2003 to the end of operations in December, according to Douglas B. Wilson, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs.
Among those invited to the “A Nation’s Gratitude” dinner hosted by the president and first lady are Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald J. Riling of the Army Materiel Command headquarters, and Army Maj. Shannon Thompson of the Missile Defense Agency, both on Redstone Arsenal.
“I’m honored and humbled to represent the soldiers who served in Iraq,” Riling said. “I’ve always had pride in serving the Army and serving our soldiers. … During my time in Iraq, I felt I was just another soldier on the battlefield, doing my job, helping other soldiers and helping Marines.”
Riling, 48, has been AMC’s command sergeant major since August 2011. He served two tours in Iraq and was awarded a Silver Star for his actions during a fierce fight in Ramadi on April 6, 2004, in which 12 Marines were killed.
He and commander Col. Buck Connor were notified that Marines attached to their brigade were pinned down. They organized a team, made their way through withering fire to link up with the Marines and then fought their way out.
As they were evacuating wounded, another Marine platoon in the area came under attack. Riling saw one of the insurgents run into a building that gave him a deadly position to fire on the U.S. troops. A soldier was trying without success to kick the door down and stop him. There were only seconds to act.
The 6-foot-2-inch Riling yelled at the soldier to get back and then crashed shoulder-first into the door, knocking it off its hinges. The insurgent, who had been hiding behind the door, was mortally wounded.
Thompson, 31, is assistant product manager for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile in the MDA. He served three tours in Iraq, was one of the first American soldiers to enter the Al Anbar province in 2003, and helped secure Tall Afar during Operation Restoring Rights in 2005.
“It is a tremendous honor and I look forward to this once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said of the White House dinner. “Although I understand that it is not practical to invite every individual that participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn to this event, I wish that they could all be there. …
“Every individual that served is deserving of this honor and I would hope that every service member feels just as honored as I am regardless of where they will be on Feb. 29, and that somebody shakes their hand and tells them ‘thank you.’ At least for my part, I know that I will remember, that ‘all gave some, but some gave all.’ “
Also invited is Staff Sgt. Shawon Tucker, who is from Alabama and now serves at McDonald Army Health Center in Fort Eustis, Va.
Senior enlisted advisers in each of the branches selected the servicemen and women who the Defense Department will fly to Washington, D.C., from all over the country and bases overseas.
“I don’t know what the cost is, but in terms of thanks for what they did, it is a minor drop in the bucket,” Wilson said in a statement.
He said he considers the dinner to be the start of a nationwide conversation about jobs for veterans, educational opportunities and help for military families.