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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Today, President Obama greets American troops returned from Iraq. He's visiting Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, home of the Army's First Armored Division.

INSKEEP: It's a safe prediction that nobody will unfurl a Mission Accomplished banner, like the one that hung behind President Bush in 2003. More than seven years of war have passed since that ceremony.

MONTAGNE: And today, President Obama marks a more ambiguous milestone. It's the formal end of U.S. combat operations.

The president addresses the nation tonight, and in a moment, we'll question his spokesman Robert Gibbs.

We begin with NPR's John Burnett.

JOHN BURNETT: If he had a few words with the commander-in-chief today, Major Elliott Rogers would tell him this.

Major ELLIOTT ROGERS (Rear Detachment Commander, First Armored Division): I guess the first thing that pops in my mind is to say thank you.

BURNETT: Thank you that he will not lose any more soldiers. Fifty-one from Ft. Bliss have died in Iraq. The 37-year-old rear detachment commander from Raleigh, North Carolina, is also thankful - after repeated trips to Iraq - that he is at home in El Paso, now that his 13-year-old daughter, Erin, has started high school.

Maj. ROGERS: The fact that when she has an issue or concern in high school, I don't have to address those via Skype or, you know, freaking Web cam. I can actually put my arm around her and actually talk to her in person. So that means a lot.

BURNETT: Rogers spent his last deployment in Iraq training his counterparts in the 12th Iraqi Army Division, to take over the defense of their country, with the U.S. Army in a supporting role. He agrees with the August 31st deadline to end the combat mission. Though there are still lots of hostile combatants, Major Rogers says it's time to turn it over to the Iraqis.

Maj. ROGERS: You know, if we wanted to I guess we could stay there forever and continue to fight foreign fighters. But is the Iraqi army ready? I think, yes. Willing? I guess has to be determined.

BURNETT: Charles Hawkins, a 28-year-old staff sergeant from Vienna, Ohio, has no family and no stateside commitments. He doesn't particularly look forward to life on the sprawling desert Army post in West Texas.

If he has the opportunity to give the president a message.

Staff Sergeant CHARLES HAWKINS: Just when it's time to go to Afghanistan next. I want to go there next, so when is my next deployment?

BURNETT: Sergeant Hawkins has had five deployments to Iraq; the most recent was cut short and he returned to Fort Bliss three weeks ago, as the U.S. troop commitment was downsized. He says he won't miss it.

Sgt. HAWKINS: Pretty much all I want to see of Iraq, time to go see a new landscape.

BURNETT: In his last deployment, Hawkins and his squad in Alpha Company 1-3-6 helped train Iraqi soldiers to run highway checkpoints. In a recent USA Today poll, 60 percent of the respondents said the Iraq War was not worth it and the U.S. is not any safer. The soldiers interviewed at Fort Bliss disagree.

Has the United States won the Iraq War?

Sgt. HAWKINS: I'd say yes. We went over there for weapons of mass destruction and really didn't really find any. But we helped out a country that was in need. They needed our help and we went over and helped them and did our best. And got them to where they have - are stable now, and can help themselves.

BURNETT: With no plans for the First Armored to re-deploy to Iraq, the returning soldiers can begin to make plans.

Sergeant Josie Peters wants to buy a house with her husband - no more apartments. The 23-year-old Arkansas native has been to Iraq twice as a medic. She came back in March. Iraq veterans have had enough of sandstorms, camel spiders, and body armor in 120-degree heat.

Sergeant JOSIE PETERS: Southern Iraq was terrible. Like the wind blew and it was so hot, it felt like somebody just was standing and blowing like a hot blow dryer in your face.

BURNETT: Oh, and what would she tell the commander-in-chief today, if he stops to shake her hand.

Sgt. PETERS: His wife is always very fashionable. I like her style.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News, El Paso.

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