WASHINGTON - Eight National Guard Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen are among 78 service members attending the Nation's Gratitude dinner hosted by President Barack Obama and the first lady on Wednesday.
"It's a great honor that eight outstanding members of the National Guard (six Army and two Air National Guard) will be representing our National Guard at the White House for this celebration of all we've accomplished during Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn as a National Guard, Reserve and Active Duty team," said Air Force Gen. Craig McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau.
"Once again, it demonstrates the strength and experience that can be achieved when National Guard, Reserve and Active Component Soldiers and Airmen serve together on the battlefield. After more than 10 years of joint combat operations, it is almost impossible to tell the difference from one component to another."
The dinner is "to express the nation's gratitude to, and recognize the significant contributions of, the men and women in uniform who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and/or Operation New Dawn, and the families who supported them," the Defense Department reported.
"I am proud of every Guard member who has served on the battlefields around the world - and in the states and territories where they live," McKinley said. "We must also remember this is a celebration of our families and employers. For without them standing beside us, giving all they had, it would not have been possible for the mission to be a success."
A panel of senior enlisted leaders from every branch of the Defense Department chose the 78 service members, who represent the 54 states and territories and the District of Columbia.
"[The service members come] from diverse backgrounds, ranks; and from all services, including Guard and Reserve," the Defense Department reported. "Most remain on active duty. These service members and family members represent more than a million Americans and their families who served and made personal sacrifices in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn."
The Guard members:
- Army Spc. Janice Hernandez Flores, Guam National Guard.
- Army Sgt. Heather N. Wunderlich, Nebraska National Guard.
- Air Force Tech. Sgt. Cristian Bennett, Wisconsin National Guard.
- Army Staff Sgt. Benjamin N. Straubel, Maine National Guard.
- Army Sgt. 1st Class James Gaston Sr., Virgin Islands National Guard.
- Air Force Master Sgt. Kevin T. Bullivant, Utah National Guard.
- Army Capt. Yolanda Lee, District of Columbia National Guard.
- Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Kevin Purtee, Texas National Guard.
General McKinley and Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Denise Jelinski-Hall, senior enlisted leader of the National Guard Bureau, also are invited.
"It's an honor to attend and be in the presence of our nation's heroes," Jelinski-Hall said. "I appreciate President and Mrs. Obama hosting an event to recognize the sacrifice and dedication of our Iraq veterans and their families.
"I'm proud of our Citizen-Warriors' service and the contributions they've made. When America calls out the National Guard, they are calling the nation's finest men and women."
D.C. National Guard member Army Capt. Yolanda Lee was humbled and appreciative - and she said she represents a team.
"Having been selected to represent the Soldiers of the District of Columbia Army National Guard at the Nation's Gratitude dinner is indeed an honor and a privilege," Lee said. "It is my hope that I will be able to represent our Capital Guardians knowing the tremendous sacrifices they have endured over the past 10 years.
"The DCNG Soldiers and families have supported Operation Iraqi Freedom valiantly. We do not seek any special accolades, although it brings overwhelming joy to know that our nation in which we faithfully serve recognizes and appreciates our efforts."
The dinner is not only important to recognize service members, but also families, Jelinski-Hall said.
"During this time in our nation's history, it's important to recognize the successful mission in Iraq and the sacrifices made by service members and their families," she said. "Having the president of the United States host a dinner to honor service members signifies the gratitude of an entire nation."
Army Command Sgt. Maj. Terrence Harris, state command sergeant major for the Maine National Guard, is extremely proud one of his state's Guard members was selected.
"Staff Sergeant Straubel is one of the finest noncommissioned officers - true American heroes - I have worked with over my 33-plus years of service and is well-deserving of the honor of this dinner with the president and first lady," Harris said. "He is a very humble noncommissioned officer of the highest caliber and did what he did in combat without regard for his personal well-being.
"He is a fine example of the type of Soldiers we provide from the Maine Army National Guard to fight our nation's wars."
Straubel looks forward to representing the Maine National Guard.
"It is an incredible honor to be selected by the senior leadership to represent my fellow Maine National Guard Soldiers who served in Afghanistan and Iraq," he said. "My wife is humbled, but also very excited, to represent our family members who have made great sacrifices for their country during these operations."
The selection of eight Guard members recognizes the National Guard's integral role in all operations, Straubel said.
"Over the course of supporting conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army National Guard has played a pivotal role," Straubel said. "To have been a part of those missions and to have contributed to those success stories is something that we as Army National Guardsmen should take great pride in."
Wisconsin Air National Guard Tech. Sgt. Cristian Bennett said he looks forward to making memories in the nation's capital.
"It's probably the most humbling experience I've ever had," he said. "It's something I'll be able to tell my kids and my grandchildren about. It's one of the proudest moments of my military career - I can't think of anything that would top this."
Bennett also said it is important to have events like this to recognize jobs well done and show thanks for sacrifices made.
"[This dinner is] an important event marking a very long conflict," he said. "The National Guard played such a significant role in efforts after 9/11, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Bennett said he is proud of the role the National Guard has with the Army and Air Force.
"We played such an important part in the day-to-day operations," he said.
His adjutant general - Air Force Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar - said Bennett will be a great ambassador for the Wisconsin National Guard.
"I am extremely proud that Tech. Sergeant Bennett has been selected for this honor … and I am pleased that he will represent the thousands of Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers and Airmen who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn," Dunbar said. "He represents the dedication and selfless service demonstrated every day by our men and women in uniform."
Also attending: Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chiefs of the five services, the service senior enlisted leaders, Gold Star families and wounded warriors.
- The Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense Public Affairs contributed.