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Dec. 16, 2011:
Baghdad—Pentagon leaders officially ended the US military mission in Iraq on Thursday in a solemn ceremony that recognized the selfless sacrifices of both Americans and Iraqis throughout the nearly nine years of war.

"On this very historic occasion for both the Iraqi people and the American people, no words, no ceremony can provide full tribute to the sacrifices that have brought this day to pass," said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was flanked by both the American and Iraqi flags as he spoke outside the US Forces-Iraq headquarters here on the grounds of the former Sather Air Base. On Dec. 1, Sather became the Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center.

The cased US colors will now return to the United States where they will be retired and likely displayed inside the Pentagon. They will serve as a constant reminder of the nearly 4,500 US military personnel who died during Operation Iraqi Freedom and the follow-on Operation New Dawn and the more than 32,000 who were wounded, many seriously.

More than 100,000 Iraqi civilians also were killed during the long war.

OIF began in March 2003 when a US-led coalition invaded Iraq. However, many airmen and other US military personnel have been engaged in Iraq for the past 20 years since Operation Desert Storm and the subsequent enforcement of no-fly zones over the country.

In fact, for many pilots in today's Air Force, rotational deployments to fly over Iraq have been a routine part of their entire careers, and most airmen have never known an Air Force that wasn't heavily engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"For more than 20 years, Iraq has been a defining part of our professional and our personal lives. The road we have traveled was long and it was tough," said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during the ceremony.

He continued, "Our journey was a lesson in courage, affirmation of shared sacrifice, and a monument to sheer will. Every day required us to balance confidence and compassion. Every step was a single act of moral and physical courage."

Hundreds of airmen and soldiers, and a few sailors and marines attended the ceremony. Most of those troops were scheduled to fly out of Iraq either on Thursday or Friday. After them, the roughly 3,500 remaining US troops were expected to leave in the next few days.

About 177,000 US military personnel served in Iraq during the height of operations, many of whom repeatedly left their loved ones behind to fight in a war with an "outcome that was never certain, especially during the darkest days," said Panetta, who was a member of then President Bush's Iraq study group in 2006. At that time, "sectarian violence was skyrocketing and it seemed as if nothing was working," said Panetta.

SrA. Matthew Weeks, an aerial porter assigned to Sather's 477th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron, said he considered the ceremony a personal tribute to all those he knew who died in the war. He was part of the honor guard detail during the ceremony. He was on his second tour in Iraq.

"I'm going to be thinking of my brother, a Marine, who was injured in Fallujah in 2006 after he was hit with an RPG, and all of the friends I've lost over here," said Weeks.

Despite the loss of friends and comrades, the birthdays missed, and the long months away from home, saying goodbye was not easy for some airmen.

MSgt. Kerry Jackson, a spokesman for Sather's 321st Air Expeditionary Wing, called his Iraqi counterpart for an emotional goodbye as Jackson waited to board a C-130 heading out of the country.

"It's a real bond and it's kind of hard to leave. I'm going to miss him," said Jackson after he hanged up the phone. "I did not think that way when I first got here. I just thought it's too expensive, we should go home. Now it's hard to say you should leave."

The Pentagon leadership thanked the Iraqis, including Gen. Babakir Zebari, chief of staff of Iraqi's joint forces, who was sitting in the audience, for those strong and lasting relationships developed over the years.

"Thank you for your courage, for your leadership, for your friendship over these many years. More importantly, thank you for your loyalty to the future of Iraq," said Panetta. "Your dreams of an independent and sovereign Iraq are now a reality."