By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
April 8, 2009 - Vice President Joe Biden welcomed home the 18th Airborne Corps headquarters today during a ceremony at Fort Bragg, N.C., after the soldiers spent nearly 15 months deployed in Iraq. Biden was joined by his wife, Jill, and Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg commander.
The vice president spoke before thousands of soldiers and family members at the main post parade field, thanking them for their sacrifice and service. The 18th Airborne Corps' efforts in Iraq have given the Iraqis the opportunity to continue progress on their own accord, he said.
"I am absolutely confident that the Iraqis are in a much better place to take responsibility for their own security," Biden said. "You set a country on a course that may affect the shape of the history of that region for generations to come."
Austin and his soldiers assumed command of Multinational Corps Iraq in February 2008, a time when the future of Iraq wasn't looking as promising as it does today.
"Fifteen months ago, our country called you to serve in Iraq," Biden said. "You arrived in a country that was on the brink of a civil war, ... a country that experienced widespread sectarian violence, while insurgents targeted our troops on a daily basis.
"You went in the midst of what was an uncertain future for Iraq," he continued.
Biden lauded the corps' oversight of combat operations in Iraq, noting the steady and continuous decline in violence over their tenure. Extremists operating in northern and southern Iraq were dealt "a serious blow," while coalition and Iraqi forces also had great success in significantly reducing the flow of weapons and foreign fighters crossing Iraq's western border with Iran, he said.
Biden also noted that the period surrounding the January provincial elections in Iraq saw only 11 attacks across the country, while the previous elections in 2005 recorded more than 300 terrorist attacks.
"You sent a message to the entire world that things weren't moving backwards, but they were moving forward in Iraq," he said. "You gave the Iraqis a chance, a fighting chance, to reclaim their country and establish a stable government for the first time – a government chosen by their own people."
A lot of changes occurred in Iraq during the past 15 months, but a lot of changes took place at home with the families too, Biden said. Soldiers miss their children's first steps, birthdays and their loved ones' anniversaries, as well as the everyday routine of being with their families.
Biden credited the families for their strong convictions to stand by and support their soldiers when many Americans will never understand the extent of the sacrifices made on the home front, he said.
"So many good, decent Americans don't have any idea of the depth of the sacrifices your families make," he said. He thanked the families and soldiers again on behalf of all Americans, telling them, "America owes you."
Progress in Iraq has come at great cost, Biden said. He noted that more than 4,200 American lives have been lost in Iraq, and thousands more have suffered disabling injuries. Millions of innocent Iraqis are estimated to have been injured orkilled since March 2003, he added.
"Those sacrifices have been real," Biden said. "The sacrifices you've made have been real. They've stabilized Iraq, secured our interests and put us in a position to begin in an orderly fashion to draw down forces and hand over responsibility to the Iraqis."
Biden echoed comments President Barack Obama made to troops during a surprise stop in Iraq yesterday, calling for now as the time for Iraqis to take responsibility of their country. Obama has made it clear the White House is willing "to do everything possible to meet the needs that are required for the mission [in Iraq] and to support you on your return home," Biden said.
"But the work is on the Iraqis' watch now," he added. "You have given the Iraqis the opportunity, for the first time in any of their memories, to live in peace. But it's up to them to make the political reconciliations necessary so they can keep it."
However, the job of America's military isn't done. Too many terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks are still "alive and well" in the mountain and tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Biden said. The president will continue to call on the armed services to combat extremists in those countries, he added.
"Our mission is to disrupt, defeat and dismantle al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan," he said, quoting Obama. "That effort is still under way. There's more work to be done. We're going to be asking more of those of you who wear the uniform."
About 200 soldiers from 18th Airborne Corps headquarters flew into Pope Air Force Base, N.C., on April 4. Austin and 40 more soldiers flew in the following day after officially relinquishing command of Multinational Corps Iraq to 1st Corps from Fort Lewis, Wash.
The 18th Airborne Corps was the operational headquarters in charge of the Iraq military theater from February 2005 to January 2006, and then again from February 2007 until the April 4 turnover. The corps was responsible for nearly 160,000 coalition troops within three Army divisions, a Marine expeditionary force, three coalition divisions and numerous separate brigades.