FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Vice President Joe Biden welcomed home soldiers after their 15-month deployment to Iraq, telling U.S. troops Wednesday that the war-torn nation is "a country where violence is replaced by progress."
"You did more than I suspect you even know," Biden told several thousand soldiers during a welcome home ceremony for the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg. "You went in the midst of what was an uncertain future for Iraq and you left a country where violence is replaced by progress."
The vice president said Iraqis will have to take responsibility to keep the gains that have been made.
"You have given the Iraqis for the first time in their memory the opportunity to live in peace, but it's up to them to keep it."
Biden also presented awards to several of the unit's soldiers, including six Bronze Stars — the Army's fourth-highest combat medal — and a meritorious service award for a chaplain.
One soldier who received a Bronze Star agreed with Biden's assessment of Iraq.
"This was my third deployment," said Staff Sgt. Jeffrey West, 32, of Trenton, N.C. "It's a different Iraq. It was like the wild West before."
Corps commander Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin said during the 15-month deployment that his soldiers helped peaceful elections occur.
"Today, Iraq is experiencing the lowest levels of violence since the beginning of the war," Austin said. "Iraq has a tremendous opportunity to achieve its potential because of the efforts of the 18th Airborne Corps."
Austin said 15 months ago when his headquarters troops arrived to assume command of ground forces there were as many as 600 insurgent attacks a week. The number of attacks had dropped to less than 100 a week by the time he left, said Austin, who returned home Sunday.
About 900 soldiers from the 18th Airborne Corps headquarters have recently returned to North Carolina, including about 200 over the weekend. The unit spent more than a year in charge of the Multi-National Force in Iraq. It completed that work on Saturday and passed along the command to I Corps of Fort Lewis, Wash.
Biden's wife, Jill, attended the 1½-hour ceremony along with 1,700 spectators and 1,200 soldiers on the parade ground in front of Biden's viewing stand. The Biden's son, Beau, is serving in Iraq with the Delaware Army National Guard. Sen. Kay Hagan and Reps. Mike McIntyre and Bob Etheridge, all North Carolina Democrats, also attended the ceremony.
The vice president visited North Carolina last week, touring a rural health care center in Faison and a volunteer fire department in Pikeville. He touted the $787 billion federal stimulus package, saying it would help residents and home buyers in rural areas nationwide.
It was Biden's first trip to Fort Bragg as vice president. He was honored with a 19-gun salute from 105 mm howitzers and presented with a ceremonial artillery shell.
Biden spoke about the administration's support for military families and said they will have to endure more deployments to Afghanistan and its mountains on the Pakistan border because "that's where al Qaida is, that's where bin Laden is and that's where the jihadists are that attacked America."