WASHINGTON — When she attended Blackville-Hilda High School in South Carolina, Nytayia Jamison never imagined that she would dine at the White House, much less with the first black president.
But then, Jamison, who was born in Bamberg, S.C., didn't envision herself serving in Iraq.
Wednesday night, the Marine Corps sergeant will join 77 other Iraq war veterans from across the country for "A Nation's Gratitude Dinner" with President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.
Jamison, 24, feels honored to be chosen to attend the formal gala, and it has special meaning to her as an African-American.
"I get to meet the first black president on the last day of Black History Month," Jamison told McClatchy on Tuesday.
"Most people in the African-American community look up to President Obama because of what he's accomplished," Jamison said. "To be able to sit with him and actually break bread with him is something I'll be proud of the rest of my life."
Obama is holding the dinner as a symbolic show of gratitude to all Americans who served in the Iraq war, which started with the March 2003 invasion that soon toppled dictator Saddam Hussein and ended when the last U.S. troops departed in December.
"He will certainly be engaging with those at the dinner," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. "I think it's to note the accomplishments and sacrifice of the men and women who served in Iraq in a difficult military engagement, a difficult war that lasted for eight years — or nine."
The state dinner in the East Room, a level of pomp normally reserved for visiting heads of states, will also include the chiefs of the military services and relatives of warriors slain in Iraq.
Jamison, who now works at the Pentagon on Marine Corps budget issues, will be one of 15 Marines at the dinner, with ranks from lieutenant colonel to corporal.
Jamison is the daughter of Lennell Jamison of Denmark, S.C., and Cassandra McCaskell of Columbia, S.C. She'll attend the White House dinner with her boyfriend of three years, Loneli Lopez, a former Marine who just got a bachelor's degree in criminal justice.
After surviving boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Parris Island and combat training at Camp Geiger in Jacksonville, S.C., Jamison did an administrative tour at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Jamison arrived in Iraq on March 1, 2008, serving at Al Asad Air Base, 100 miles west of Baghdad, until Sept. 15, 2008. She worked in payroll, making sure Marines got their paychecks, received proper health care and obtained other benefits.
In Iraq, Jamison carried an M4 service rifle, an assault weapon that's one of a half-dozen firearms she's trained to shoot. She has an expert marksmanship rating.
After leaving Iraq, Jamison worked on the personnel staff of The Basic School at Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia before being transferred to the Pentagon in September.
Jamison has strong memories of the Iraqi women who worked as local hires at Al Asad, who she said were fascinated by her as a female warrior wearing Marine Corps fatigues and carrying a weapon.
"They were fascinated by us," Jamison recalled. "They would try to touch us, touch our weapons. They brought us scarves and all kinds of gifts."
On Tuesday, as she walked at a quick gait through the Pentagon's endless hallways, Jamison snapped off salutes to passing officers.
One of them, a major, greeted her with a hearty "Oorah!" — the Marine Corps battle cry.
Jamison is proud of her service in Iraq, where she feels like she contributed to an important mission.
"It was all about the greater good of helping the Iraqi people out of their oppressed state," Jamison said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2012