In the early morning hours of March 20, 2003, U.S. airstrikes in Baghdad opened a new front in the global war on terrorism: Operation Iraqi Freedom had begun. The operation did what its name suggested. Militant extremists and insurgents were systematically exterminated, and Iraq's oppressive leader, Saddam Hussein, was hunted down and hanged. A new constitution was drafted and approved, elections were held, and an Iraqi army trained by U.S. military personnel was stood up. Having given rise to the promise of freedom and safety, our military mission in Iraq was assigned a new name: Operation New Dawn. Today, it needs no name because U.S. troops are now out of Iraq, ending America's eight-year military presence there.
It is now time for Iraq to protect itself from those who would seize its hard-won freedoms. And it is up to us, as Americans and as Legionnaires, to welcome home our service men and women who fought so bravely and successfully.
Thousands of American military men and women will be able to gather with their families during the holidays in the coming days. Undoubtedly, they will raise their glasses in memory of nearly 4,500 comrades who went off to war and never came back alive. For some, the war will go on inside their heads for years to come.
Many of these veterans will need health care – physical and mental alike. Some will want to pursue delayed college educations or convert their military experiences into trades and professions. Unfortunately, a good number of them will enter a job market that is only beginning to recover after years of recession and an unemployment rate that has climbed to as high as 30 percent for veterans ages 20 to 24. Some will want to go into business for themselves.
As our troops have been serving, The American Legion has worked every day to ensure that the best possible care, compassion and opportunity are made available to them upon their return. We continue to work to make a better Post 9/11 GI Bill. We have fought for adequate funding for VA health-care services with special emphasis on improving mental health and the needs of women veterans. We have demanded better compliance with the Veterans Preference Hiring Act and with laws that require no less than 3 percent of federal contracts be awarded to service-disabled veterans. We have coordinated job fairs and business workshops. American Legion service officers are assisting tens of thousands of veterans and their families every day with benefits claims and other matters.
The war in Iraq may be over, at least for now, but our work in support of this generation of veterans has only begun. The American Legion was created primarily to provide that support, and it has fulfilled for every U.S. war era since 1919, regardless of the nation's economic condition or political climate.
Welcoming home our servicemembers is not just a government funding issue. It is a moral responsibility. That is why we will continue to reach out to all veterans for years and decades to come.
My wish this holiday season is that Legionnaires everywhere step forward and help our homecoming servicemembers, newly discharged veterans and their families adjust to their new lives. And do not be shy about it. Invite them to your posts. Offer a welcome-home dinner in their honor. If you have a National Guard or reserve unit based in your community, stage an event to celebrate their accomplishments. Help them charter a new American Legion post if they want one.
When the Vietnam War generation – my generation – came home from the service, too few Americans paid any attention to our sacrifices. Some showed outright disrespect. I think that is why we feel such a sense of connection to today's warriors.
So, as the Iraq generation comes home, please make sure they feel welcome in your post. Seek them out, if necessary. Lend an ear when they need someone to talk to. Share your experiences with them. Offer a shoulder to cry on, if one is needed. Regardless of where we served or when, we all have a common bond. And those of us who have seen combat in distant places know what it means to hear the words, "Welcome home" and "Thank you for your service."
It is my honor and privilege to offer the full support of the nation's largest veterans service organization to the men and women who've served with distinction in Iraq. May they always know that in The American Legion, they have a lifelong friend.