A White House dinner to honor Iraq war veterans is no substitute for a national day when all Americans can welcome home returning troops, a veterans group said Tuesday.
“We certainly appreciate that the president is holding this dinner. At the same time, the rest of the American public really wants to do something to welcome home our vets and to support them going forward,” Jason Hansman, an Iraq vet and membership director of the Iraqi and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told msnbc.com.
An event some have called a state dinner for the troops is scheduled for Wednesday in the East Room of the White House. Saying it the beginning of a "thank you," it will express the nation’s gratitude to American service members who served in the nine-year Iraq war, according to Douglas Wilson, the Pentagon's public affairs chief.
A hand-picked number of service members, veterans and their families will attend representing every state and territory, the District of Columbia as well as variety of ranks as well as all branches of the military.
The dinner, with an estimated 200 attendees, will include fewer than 80 combat veterans.
Hosted by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and the chiefs of the five services and National Guard and Reserve are expected to attend.
A larger group of military leaders, Iraq war veterans and their families will take part in a reception sponsored by the Defense Department at a Washington hotel before the White House dinner, however.
Rachel Maddow highlights an effort by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America to establish a national day of action for the nation as a whole to celebrate returning Iraq War veterans.
First wounded in Iraq
Among those attending the dinner is Eric Alva, a former Marine who became the first person wounded in the Iraq war when he stepped on a landmine in Basra in 2003. His leg had to be amputated after the injury. He later went on to graduate from college and crusade against the ‘don’t ask don’t tell policy’ on gays in the military.
Alva was present when Obama repealed the ban on gays serving in the armed forces last year.
Since Obama announced last December the end to the war in Iraq in which 1.5 million Americans fought, there has been increased debate over how little fanfare has been afforded the returning troops.
Some grassroots organizers even took matters into their hands. A parade for returning veterans in St. Louis last month drew some 100,000 people and 20,000 participants. Several other cities, including Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Seattle, Tucson, Ariz., Nashville, Tenn., Greensboro, N.C., and Clinton, Iowa have expressed interest in such a celebration.
Veterans groups and others want a ticker tape parade in New York City to honor returning vets. Military leaders, however, have said such a large scale national tribute was inappropriate considering nearly 90,000 U.S. troops are still fighting in Afghanistan.
Now the Iraqi and Afghanistan Veterans Association, which has 140,000 members, is calling for a national day of action for veterans. The day would be both a celebration and an awareness campaign to help vets find jobs and connect them with other resources.
“It’s not just about a day, it’s not just about a parade or an event or even a White House dinner,” said the IAVA's Hansman, who will attend the White House event. “It’s about ultimately connecting vets with resources. We know that they’re struggling with employment, with suicide, and they’re going back to school in record numbers so it’s about connecting them with resources and helping them transition.”
MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan continues the college leg of his 30 Million Jobs Tour and talks with West Point graduate Dan Nolan, a 26-year-old army veteran, about the possibility of putting vets to work on alternative energy projects.
Unemployment for post-9-11 veterans soared into double digits in recent years but dipped to 9.3 percent in December 2011. That’s still higher than the national jobless rate of 8.3 percent.
To be sure, the White House has made getting war veterans back to work a priority. Earlier this month, Obama announced measures to hire Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to restore national parks and work as police and firefighters. And Michelle Obama has worked to support military families by calling for changes to the Family and Medical Leave Act to protect jobs when service members are away or become injured.
Nearly 4,500 Americans were killed in Iraq, and more than 32,000 were wounded, according to the Pentagon.
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