MADISON, Wis. --
The Wisconsin Air National Guard's Tech. Sgt. Cristian Bennett agreed with President Barack Obama's statement that there had never been a night at the White House quite like the Feb. 29 dinner for Iraq war veterans.
"This evening we welcome, not the statesmen who decide great questions of war and peace, but citizens," Obama said. "Men and women from every corner of our country, from every rank of our military, every branch of our service, who answered the call."
"It was very reassuring to hear the words that they said," Bennett said of comments made by Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "All the leaders there were talking directly from the heart."
Bennett, a fighter team leader with the Madison-based 115th Fighter Wing's Security Forces Squadron, was selected to represent Wisconsin at the White House event dubbed "A Nation's Gratitude: Honoring Those Who Served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn." The event was a tribute to 78 Iraq War veterans and their families to honor them for their service, sacrifice and commitment to nation.
"It was very humbling to be chosen," Bennett said. "To have the president of the United States talking directly to us, it was overwhelming."
Bennett and his wife Rachel, of Evansville, Wis., sat approximately 25 feet from the podium where the president and other leaders spoke. The Bennetts also had the opportunity to shake hands with President and Mrs. Obama. This was his first meeting with Obama,, even though he worked on the presidential security detail when Air Force One landed at Truax Field in 2009 and 2010.
"He is a down-to-earth person," Bennett said of the president.
"In one of our nation's longest wars, you wrote one of the most extraordinary chapters in American military history," Obama told the more than five dozen Iraq veterans and their guests. "Now, the Iraqi people have a chance to forge their own destiny, and every one of you who served there can take pride in knowing you gave the Iraqis that opportunity -- that you succeeded in your mission."
The vice president lauded service members for their ability to adapt to challenges, the capture of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the opportunity they gave the people of Iraq to have a self-governing, self-sufficient nation.
"You're incredible. You adapted, you succeeded and you defeated," Biden said. "You defeated a tyrant, [and] you beat back violent extremists. And the most remarkable thing you did, because of the breadth of your capability, you enabled a country that had not been governed in any reasonable way for over four decades, you actually helped them set up institutions and train a military and a civilian corps that gives them a real fighting chance."
"To all who fought in Iraq, we thank you for your service," he said. "You've earned our nation's everlasting gratitude. We are indebted to you for your willingness to fight [and] your willingness to sacrifice for your country.
"We are [also] indebted to your families and your loved ones for the sacrifices that they made so that their loved ones could help defend this nation," Panetta said.
The chairman, who was first to speak, thanked the president and first lady for paying tribute to veterans and families of the Iraq War.
"Mr. President, Mrs. Obama, thank you for recognizing the service and sacrifice of the military family in this very special way," Dempsey said. "We really appreciate the support that you, the vice president and Dr. Biden, and those that they bound together in the 'Joining Forces' initiative and the nation provide us."
The president said this isn't the first or last time the nation will pay tribute to "those who served courageously in Iraq," noting that the nation's attitude toward service members has changed in the last half century.
"History reminds us of our obligations as a nation at moments like this," he said. "Now this year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, a time when our veterans didn't always receive the respect and the thanks that they so richly deserved. That's a mistake that we must never repeat. The good news is already we've seen Americans come together in small towns and big cities all across the country to honor your service in Iraq.
"Tonight, on behalf of Michelle and myself, on behalf of over 300 million Americans we want to express those simple words that we can never say enough," the president continued. "That's 'Thank you.'"
Bennett said seeing two Marines at the dinner who were severely wounded in Iraq reminded him of his own tour of duty there from 2005 to 2006, working with Iraqi police cadets in Mosul. He earned an Air Force Combat Action Medal for multiple engagements with Iraqi insurgents, and survived two close encounters with roadside bombs that has left him with mild traumatic brain injury.
"I realized how lucky I was," Bennett said.
Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr. of the American Forces Press Service contributed to this report.
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