As the last American combat troops pulled out of Iraq last week, an important chapter in history was closed. Certainly, U.S. involvement in Iraq is far from over, but years of active, sometimes bloody, combat by large numbers of our forces seems to have ended.
Pride and relief showed on the faces of American soldiers seen in videotapes shot as the last units crossed the border from Iraq into Kuwait. Of course they are happy to be out of harm's way. And they have every right to be proud.
We hope each and every American who has served in the military in Iraq understands how we, feel about them.
We are proud of what they accomplished. Whatever they were asked to do, they did. Often, they fought under trying rules of engagement. At least in the beginning, many died and were wounded because their equipment was not adequate for the new kind of war they faced.
By Thursday, 4,415 Americans had died in more than seven years of conflict in Iraq. Each and every one of them was a terrible loss - not just for friends, families, communities and comrades in arms. In many ways they were the best our nation had to offer. They laid down their lives simply because they were willing to answer their country's call.
Even as the last U.S. combat troops were leaving Iraq, their comrades in arms were engaged in combat in Afghanistan - against a vicious, unrelenting enemy. More than 1,200 American troops have died there - and the toll is expected to increase.
Americans are proud of our service men and women in Afghanistan, too. We know they also will accomplish what they are asked to do, no matter what the cost. Our prayers are with them.
While one chapter in the long history of U.S. military involvement abroad has ended, others still are being written. Sadly, there is no reason to believe Iraq and Afghanistan will be the last times America's finest are called upon to put their lives on the line for us.
It is vitally important, then, that they - and that includes both those still in service and those who have come home to our communities - understand something: Our pride in your courage, ability and patriotism is surpassed only by our gratitude.
Throughout this great land of ours, tens of millions of Americans are grateful beyond words. On their behalf, then, we say this - from the bottoms of our hearts - to our service men and women, and veterans: Thank you and God bless you.