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Secretary of Defense Speech

"Veterans Day at the Wall" Ceremony

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C., November 11, 2014

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Thank you all very much.

Jake [Tapper], thank you. Thank you for your talent and your time today.

I want to recognize an individual who has already been recognized this afternoon, Jan Scruggs… and appropriately recognized as the individual who wasn’t maybe solely responsible for this memorial being built, but single-handedly did as much as any one individual, with a pretty spectacular team, many are here today to support him. To Jan Scruggs, and the board that stepped forward at a time that was difficult, when a lot of people didn’t believe that they could do it, nor the reason as to why they were recognizing the warriors, not the war but the Vietnam veterans. So to Jan Scruggs and many of his original board members who are here today, and others who have stepped in and followed the leadership of Jan and that original board, cast of characters back in 1979, we want to recognize them again today – especially on this 30th anniversary of the Statue of the Three Soldiers.

So to Jan – I know you’re in New York; I just talked to him a week ago – and to many of your board members here, the current board members, those who continue to support this effort – and one other thing, the effort to build an educational center, which is not complete yet. It will be. Your continued support to help that get accomplished, that connects this in ways that few memorials do. So thank all of you who’ve continued to work on that effort. We have a few miles to go, but it is a worthy and noble effort. So thank you all very much.

To all the veterans here today, thank you. To your families, thank you. To the veterans who are not here today, and their families, we also want to acknowledge your service and your sacrifices.

And to those who have not worn our nation’s uniform, thank you. Thank you for supporting these men and women, these veterans. Thank you for serving in a special capacity. Thank you for supporting our men and women today in uniform, and their families, who are all over the world – doing incredible work on behalf the security of this country – a world that is dangerous, complicated, interconnected, and it is requiring skill sets of our military and these men and women that we’ve never had to have before. So for your support, for our country’s support of these men and women doing this incredible job for all of us, thank you.

Forty-five years ago today, I attended my first Veterans Day ceremony as a veteran. I was a student at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. I had returned from Vietnam with my brother Tom a few months before that.

I’ve always remembered that Veterans Day in 1969, because it reminded me of the one constant throughout the Vietnam War – the one constant that many of you out here today recall from that war. And that constant was the uncommon valor of Americans – the uncommon valor of Americans from every corner of this country. They were the quiet heroes, the quiet heroes of our time. Some of these veterans are here today… and the names of many more are memorialized on the Wall behind us.

This Wall means many things to many people. As it records the names of the past, and reflects on our hopes for the future, it also offers a reminder – a message that carries across generations:

The Wall reminds us to honor those who defend our country… from making sure they’re treated with the dignity and the respect and the appreciation they deserve, to caring for those who return home with visible – and invisible – wounds of war. Regardless of when or where or what war they served in, taking care of our people is a sacred responsibility that we must always honor.

The Wall reminds us to be honest in our telling of history. There is nothing to be gained by glossing over the darker portions of a war, the Vietnam War, that bitterly divided America. We must openly acknowledge past mistakes, and we must learn from past mistakes, because that is how we avoid repeating past mistakes.

The Wall reminds us that we must never take the security of our country for granted, ever. And we must always question our policies that send our citizens to war, because our nation’s policies must always be worthy – worthy of the sacrifices we ask of the men and women who defend our country.

Every month I have a private lunch with junior enlisted personnel from all the services. What they tell me – and what every American should know – is that today’s servicemembers don’t want to be glorified or given special treatment or given special privileges. The entire 9/11 generation volunteered to serve at a time of war – at a time our nation was threatened, was attacked – and they have a strong desire to continue making a difference in the world… whether by staying in the military, finding a job that engages them every day outside the military, pursuing another outlet for public service, or just being involved in their local communities. They don’t need a hand-out or a hand-up – they just want the opportunity to continue proving themselves. It falls on us to make sure that they get that opportunity… the opportunity that too many veterans have been denied in the past.

So on Veterans Day, and every day, let’s celebrate our troops, our veterans, their families by telling their stories – stories that inspire us all, generation after generation after generation – so that others can understand what these men and women have done for our country. Let’s help those who need it, while supporting their strength and their resilience. And let’s honor our veterans by creating new opportunities – new opportunities for them to contribute after their service in uniform, so they can continue to help make a better world.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve always been grateful for an opportunity to share this day, on this location, at this memorial, with veterans and their families. It is a high privilege.

Thank you.