The White House

Office of the Vice President

Remarks of Vice President Biden at the Welcome Home Ceremony for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team from Iraq

Welcome Home Ceremony for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team from Iraq
Fort Drum, New York
Wednesday, July 28, 2010

As Prepared for Delivery—

Good afternoon and thank you all for coming. It is an honor to be back up here in the North Country, with some the Army’s finest soldiers and your outstanding leaders, Major General Terry and Sergeant Major Greca.

I want to thank my wife, Dr. Jill Biden, for introducing me today, and for all of the work she is doing on behalf of military families like yours, who are heroes in every sense of the word.

Many of you recently returned from Iraq. Before I go any further, let me just say, on behalf of the American people you have served so courageously: Welcome home! You are the best of us, the best America has. We honor you and we thank you. Welcome home.

Jill and I understand how your families must feel at a time like this. The day that our son Beau came back from a yearlong tour in Baghdad was one of the proudest of our lives.

While he was gone, we came to appreciate what the poet John Milton meant when he said: “they also serve who only stand and wait.”

Some of you are still waiting. Our troops in harm’s way—including about 900 members of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team due home from Iraq in the coming days—remain, as ever, in our thoughts and prayers.

This is Fort Drum’s 25th year as home to the 10th Mountain Division.

As you know, your Division’s proud history goes back much farther. Formed at the height of World War Two, the 10th Mountain is the largest unit in the Army focused on fighting in harsh terrain, a mission epitomized by the motto: “climb to glory.” 

Your predecessors helped defeat the German Army along the snowy peaks and riverbeds of the Italian Alps.

One of them, Pfc. John D. Magrath, won a Medal of Honor for taking out three machine gun nests and several other positions before he was struck down.

Another was a young platoon leader severely wounded by enemy fire, who went on to become a great United States Senator: my friend and longtime colleague Bob Dole.

Since that time, the 10th Mountain has earned a reputation as one of the army’s most frequently deployed units, with tours in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, and almost everywhere in between.

And today’s warriors are worthy successors to that proud legacy. Our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan—and the demands we have placed on our soldiers and their families—are unlike any that came before.

Soldiers like Jared Monti —who died while trying to rescue a wounded comrade in Afghanistan, and was later awarded the Medal of Honor—have taken their place alongside heroes who came before.

And the unforgiving battlefields where you’ve fought and bled—from the Afghan Hindu Kush to Iraq’s Triangle of Death—are as much a part of Division lore as Riva Ridge and the Po River Valley.

More than seven years ago, our military was given a mission in Iraq as complex and challenging as any it has ever attempted.

A warzone with no safe havens and no front lines. An invisible threat from explosives that turned highways into death traps. And an enemy that used suicide as a devastating weapon, requiring split-second decisions that could save soldiers’ lives or cause the death of innocents.

More than one million American service members have deployed in support of that effort.

You and your colleagues persevered and succeeded. With your help, Iraq’s leaders and security forces persevered and succeeded. And therefore those who sought to make chaos and destruction a hallmark of the new Iraq have failed.

I’ve been looking forward to this day for a long time. One month from now, as President Obama pledged, America’s combat mission in Iraq will end.

By August 31, from more than 145,000 troops on the ground when this Administration took office, 50,000 will remain.

Our remaining troops will focus on advising and assisting Iraqi forces, on counter-terrorism in partnership with their Iraqi colleagues, and on protecting our civilian and military personnel and facilities.

By the end of 2011, all of America’s forces will leave Iraq, and its security will be wholly in the hands of its government and its people.

I have visited Iraq many times, including four trips as Vice President, most recently for the July 4 holiday, when Jill came with me. I have seen firsthand what you have sacrificed and what you have accomplished.

You and your families have endured multiple deployments—four to Iraq and three to Afghanistan for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team alone. You have felt the strain of missing anniversaries and holidays, and even the arrival of a newborn child.

You have enabled the Iraqi people to replace a tyrant with a new constitution, a new parliament, and two national elections conducted freely, fairly, and, by-and-large, safely.

And perhaps most important, you have prepared Iraq’s security forces to safeguard their future as a sovereign, stable and self-reliant country. Now it is up to them.

All of this is critical to American interests, because a stable Iraq is important for stability in the Middle East, and because Iraq will be a valuable ally in this vitally important region for years to come.

The soldiers in this audience don’t need me to tell them how important it is for Iraq to be able to stand on its own.

As you recall, for this recent deployment, your commanders wisely defined success as enabling Iraq’s transition to autonomy.

They knew that unlike in other wars, winning would not be marked by a four-star general receiving the enemy’s surrender, but by an Iraqi jundi leading a combat patrol, and rival political factions settling their differences at the ballot box.

With that vision in mind, over the past nine months, you helped safeguard an election; transferred 13 bases to Iraqi forces; and established two new training academies that graduated more than 500 police and soldiers.

And you have now been sent home three months early, having achieved every one of your goals.

Iraqi forces now run those academies you built. After learning from—and fighting alongside—the world’s greatest military, they are in the lead. Thanks to you, they are ready to do the job long after we’re gone.

Earlier this year, an operation that Iraqis led, based on intelligence they developed, resulted in the death of the top two leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq. And over a three-month period, 32 of the top 42 al Qaeda commanders were killed or captured.

That is a major part of why Iraq is a far safer and more secure country, with violence at its lowest level in years.

Anyone who last spent time in Iraq in 2006 or 2007, would hardly recognize it. Back then, the country veered towards civil war; mass casualty bombings were daily events; and the Baghdad morgue was overwhelmed by the bodies of those executed only for their faith or ethnicity.

Although Al Qaeda and other extremists continue their efforts to disrupt Iraq’s progress, they have been unsuccessful.

Today, in an Iraq once mired in sectarian conflict, politics has broken out. Party leaders are engaged in the difficult but essential process of forming a government, not by violence and intimidation, but through negotiation.

And while challenges remain, the Iraqi people have overwhelmingly rejected the ugly face of Al Qaeda and the other violent extremists who have sought to tear their country apart.

Iraqis had to take that step themselves, and they have. But you made it possible. You gave them that chance—the chance to freely choose their own government, the chance to choose peace over violence.

Now their political leaders must fulfill their responsibility and get on with the business of governing.

As we gather today, nearly 80,000 troops have come home since 2009, including 2,700 members of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team in recent weeks. We’ve moved countless tons of vehicles and equipment. Thousands of square miles of terrain and many dozens of military bases have been handed over.

This epic movement of manpower and machinery may not get the attention it deserves. But the fact that it has gone so smoothly is itself a remarkable achievement, confirming once again the old maxim that amateurs talk tactics and professionals talk logistics.

At the same time, there is another transition taking place. Rather than disengaging from Iraq, we will shift the focus to a civilian-led effort to transfer the skills and expertise that will enable Iraqis to unleash their country's great potential. 

We will pursue close cooperation in diplomacy and commerce and help Iraq reestablish its rightful role in the region and the broader community of nations.

Meanwhile, we will continue the important work of facilitating the return and reintegration of displaced Iraqis who choose to go home, while protecting those who remain in danger, a priority for us and for the international community.

President Obama began preparing for these changes before he took office.

As a candidate he vowed to responsibly end the war he would inherit. After the election, but before Inauguration Day, he sent me to Iraq and Afghanistan to assess the situations on the ground.

On his first full day on the job, he ordered a comprehensive review of our strategy in Iraq. And a month later, at Camp Lejeune, he described how we would move forward.

We have followed that plan every step of the way, and we will continue to follow it until our last troop comes home next year.

You have paid a heavy price for our success.

Each of you in this audience knows exactly what I am talking about. Before your most recent deployment, your buddy, Specialist Robert Riekhoff, re-enlisted and returned to Iraq for his third tour.

Known to most of you, and to his family, as “Bubba,” he emailed his mother almost every day he was gone, just to let her know he was okay. On March 18, no email came. While he was on guard duty in a watchtower that morning, insurgents attacked with rocket-propelled grenades. He left behind his young son Tyler, and daughter Katrina.

The most sacred obligation this government has is provide for those we send into harm’s way, and to care for the families of those who don’t return. We owe you.

That is why President Obama insisted we support the family members serving as caregivers for wounded warriors when they come home. It’s why we launched a post-9-11 G.I. Bill for military veterans that will also benefit their spouses and their children. And it is why, while we can never compensate you enough for all you have done, we increased pay for active duty service members. 

Jill and First Lady Michelle Obama are spearheading an unprecedented government-wide initiative to support military families and take every opportunity to remind our citizens of the sacrifices a small percentage of them making on behalf of us all.

Jill and I try to do our small part by hosting veterans at Thanksgiving, and spending Christmas Day at Walter Reed Army Medical Center with some of those engaged in a new and incredibly difficult fight simply to return to normal life.
 
But there is little comfort we can give to the families of the fallen angels who make their final trip home to Dover Air Force Base in my home state of Delaware. They have paid a price few of their fellow citizens can fathom.    

Ladies and gentlemen, we are at the dawn of a new era in Iraq. Our combat mission is nearly complete. As President Obama vowed at Camp Lejeune:

“[W]e will leave the Iraqi people with a hard-earned opportunity to live a better life – that is your achievement; that is the prospect that you have made possible.”

Iraqis from Basra to Erbil have also made great sacrifices to reach this moment. God-willing, and with your help, the worst of their struggles are now behind them. And it is now up to their political leaders to match the courage their citizens have shown and deserve to see in return.

The final chapters of our Iraq endeavor remain unwritten. But there is one thing we know already: the Americans that went to war in Iraq served their country as well as any generation of fighting men and women in our remarkable history.

You have climbed to glory and returned to a proud and grateful nation. Welcome home Second Brigade Combat Team. God Bless America. And God Bless all of our troops.

White House Shareables