President Obama called America's troops the "steel in our ship of state." Many of those men and women of steel — and the parents who helped forge them — said they think the president is plotting the right course as he declares an end to combat in Iraq.
"I'm just glad we're in a total transition now," Steve Baskis said, snapping the fingers on a nerve-damaged hand.
Baskis, 24, of Glen Ellyn, Ill., lost his sight and full use of his arms in a May 2008 explosion in Baghdad that killed one of the men in his armored vehicle. Listening to the president's speech in a living room filled with beach wedding pictures he no longer can see, the former Army specialist appreciated the president's words of support and praise, even though much still needs done.
"I think that for my buddy who died and all the ones who lost their lives, I think it would mean a lot to them," he said as his bulldog Sophie trotted around. "We can see all the work that we did . . . Ten, 20, 30 years from now, we'll know what this whole war, Iraq and Afghanistan, what we risked."
Obama marked the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom by noting that we lived in an "age without surrender ceremonies."
James Helis, a retired Army colonel who chairs the Department of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., liked how the president used his speech to address audiences in the U.S., Iraq and Afghanistan, and said he struck all the right notes.
"I thought the tone was appropriately balanced; he was candid in the challenges we face, both at home and abroad, but he was optimistic," said Helis, 53, a former NATO planner in Kabul, who watched the speech at his home in Carlisle with his wife and teenage son. "This was not a victory speech of any kind. 'Here is a milestone. It's not the end.'"
At Fort Bliss, Texas, where the president stopped earlier Tuesday, Sgt. Jeremiah Conwell, who has been to Iraq twice, said it was "pretty awesome" to hear the commander in chief thank the troops for their sacrifices.
"He gave credit where credit was due — to the guys who have been in and out of Iraq multiple times trying to end things over there and help the Iraqi people," said the father of three young children.
Conwell was particularly struck by Obama's comments about the "unbroken line of heroes" who have fought to make the lives of our children better than our own. He knows some people think this war would have been unnecessary if "it was done right the first time back in the 1990s."
"I don't know if that's true," said Conwell, who faces possible deployment to Afghanistan. "You just hope this time you can help them rebuild to the point where they want to make their country better."
As a newly minted second lieutenant in 2003, Jason Crow didn't have much time to think about whether invading Iraq was a good idea.
"The only thing I was thinking about was accomplishing the mission and getting my men home alive," said Crow, 31, now a lawyer practicing in Denver.
Looking back, Crow has "very mixed feelings" about the war. "We've all lost friends, comrades in the war. We've lost some of our finest men and women. We've spent close to a trillion dollars."
But Crow thinks the president did as much as he could to turn the page on this difficult chapter.
"His role was to give both the active duty military and veterans and the American people as close to a sense of closure in this period of American history, as respect to Iraq, as is possible, and I think he did a good job of that," said Crow, who was in Washington for a legal conference and watched the speech in a hotel room just a few blocks from the White House. "He recognized that there are inherent limits to military power."
Still, some feel the president is fooling himself if he thinks things have really changed for troops in Iraq.
Framed pictures of the first family mirrored the ones above Shawn Delgado's mantel in his home in Pataskala, Ohio. Delgado, a 40-year-old retired Marine who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, took notes on top of "The Cat in the Hat" as the president spoke. Delgado's 4-year-old son, Dominic, clinked Legos in the next room.
"It's a combat mission," Delgado said after the image of the president made way for the cast of Glee. "I don't care how you slice it. It's still a combat mission."
"Any of those guys that get hurt while they're over there, would they not rate a Purple Heart?"
The air in the American Legion lounge in Hinesville, Ga., was also heavy with skepticism. Bartender Lacey Russell switched the television from the Weather Channel to Obama's speech, only to get buffeted by howls of protest from grizzled regulars happily ignoring the "No Vulgar Language" sign beside the TV.
"You want to see it?" one of Russell's patrons cried out incredulously.
"Yes," the 23-year-old bartender shot back. "I'd like to know if my husband is going back to Iraq."
Spec. Kaylan Russell, an Army water purification specialist stationed at neighboring Fort Stewart, returned from his first 12-month tour in November. His wife — forced to switch on the TV's closed captioning after straining to hear it with the volume full blast — hoped to glean from Obama whether his war service might end there.
She was one of the few paying the president any attention. Obama's not very popular in this die-hard military community. Those sipping Budweiser and Jack Daniels either turned their attention to the Atlanta Braves game on the TV at the opposite end of the bar, or kept up their bellyaching at seeing Obama speech on the tube in their watering hole.
"This is not a political bar! Not the American Legion!" one barfly howled.
"All I can say is, go Bush!" another shouted.
Russell finally gave up, changing the channel about 15 minutes into the president's speech.
"For my own selfish reasons, to keep my husband home, I'm going to say it's good," Russell said during a cigarette break outside. "Do I agree that we're going to leave and everybody there will be great, like America? No. They've been fighting each other since Jesus."
Carla Milledge wasn't going to watch the address, but changed her mind.
Milledge, 61, of Glenwood, Iowa, was happy to hear the president declare a formal end to the combat mission. Perhaps, she thought, some mother somewhere will be spared what she has had to endure.
Army Sgt. Joseph Milledge, 23, the youngest of her five children, was serving his second tour in Iraq when he was killed by a roadside bomb Oct. 5, 2007, in Baghdad.
"I wish it would have ended three years ago, because my son might be here," she says. "I think the job is done, and it's time to bring the boys home. ... It's caused a lot of psychological problems, broken up a lot of families and caused a lot of heartache."
Associated Press Writers Caryn Rousseau in Chicago; Serena Dai in Gurnee, Ill.; Dan Elliott in Denver; Russ Bynum in Savannah, Ga.; Mark Scolforo in Lemoyne, Pa.; Susan Montoya Bryan in Fort Bliss, Texas; Jeannie Nuss in Pataskala, Ohio; and Michael J. Crumb in Des Moines contributed to this report.
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