By Chris Lawrence
The Pentagon released the list of the 78 members of the armed forces who are invited to next week's White House dinner to honor Iraq veterans. (Read the list here)
The February 29 dinner, hosted by President Barack Obama and the first lady, will "recognize the significant contributions of the men and women in uniform who served" and their families, according to the Pentagon statement.
But how to select fewer than 100 people to represent the hundreds of thousands who served in Iraq? That was the dilemma facing the Pentagon, as it tried to come up with a list of American soldiers, sailors, Marines and airman who would be invited.The Pentagon put an emphasis on diversity, aiming to represent the entire spectrum of troops that fought in Iraq over eight years. All states are represented too.
"Old, young, male, female, gay, straight. We wanted the entire country represented," said Pentagon spokesman Doug Wilson. "That means all ranks, all branches of service, all races. We wanted it to look like the battlefield in Iraq."
Most of the invitees will be non-commissioned officers, reflecting a greater emphasis on enlisted troops rather than officers, CNN was told.
There will be several openly gay troops, reflecting the recent change in policy to do away with the "don't ask, don't tell" provision that had governed the military since the 1990s.
The Defense Department will cover the costs of flying the troops and their families to Washington and one night of hotel. At least one service member is currently serving in Afghanistan, and will be flown back for the event.
"For what they did, it's just a minor drop in the bucket," said Wilson. "This is the beginning of a 'thank you.'"
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta; Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and the chiefs of the military services also will attend.