JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. -- Blending solemn tradition with joyous reunion, the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq returned home to U.S. soil Tuesday, greeted by his wife and his president in an understated ceremony to mark the end of the nine-year conflict.
President Barack Obama met Gen. Lloyd Austin and his top command staff with a smart salute at this military post in suburban Washington. Austin made his homecoming with his staff bearing the U.S. Forces-Iraq flag, the symbolic conclusion to the war.
Obama was accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden. Though neither offered formal remarks, both greeted the troops and their families.
Those families, however, had to await the ritual return of the flag before embracing their loved ones. Under Army custom the flag will be retired and either stored or displayed.
"Today we bring home the colors to United States soil, at the same time we embrace many of our own back into the fold just in time for the holidays," Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the returning men and women. "Welcome home."
The last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq on Sunday. In a visible reminder of the conflict, Dempsey, Austin and the troops who accompanied him wore their combat uniforms.
With Obama, an early opponent of the war, sitting nearby, Austin praised the war's outcome.
"What our troops achieved in Iraq over the course of nearly nine years is truly remarkable," he said. "Together with our coalition partners and core of dedicated civilians, they removed a brutal dictator and gave the Iraqi people their freedom."
Later, at the White House, Obama referred to the ceremony while calling for House Republicans to accept a Senate bipartisan compromise to extend a payroll tax cut for two months.
"These Americans and all Americans who served are the embodiment of courage, and selflessness and patriotism," Obama said during a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room. "They work as a team and they do their job. And they do it for something bigger than themselves."
"The people in this town need to learn something from them."
Dempsey and Austin saluted military families and Dempsey also singled out the USO and its history of entertaining troops during wars. Among those in the audience were former NBA star Robert Horry, a participant in a current USO holiday tour.
As the ceremony concluded, Obama waded into a teary and jubilant scene of reunion as troops and their families hugged and posed for photographs.