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National POW/MIA Recognition Day Ceremony

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, The Pentagon, Friday, September 17, 2010

Thank you, General Cartwright.  Senator Inouye, veterans, family members, representatives from the national POW-MIA community, senior leaders of this department, and other distinguished guests – I thank all of you for being here.  This is an important day for our nation and the heroes who have defended it.  We honor prisoners of war as well as those still missing, and all of their loved ones.

I have spent nearly four years as Secretary of Defense, every day at war and in a time of great challenge.  My visits with troops – from those fresh out of basic training to those on the front lines in Afghanistan – give me a focus that guides me every day: I must do, and will do, everything I can to make sure they have what they need to accomplish their mission and come home safely.  I feel a deep, personal responsibility for each and every one of them, as if they were my own sons and daughters. 

The tragic reality is that, despite all our efforts, I know that not all these brave men and women will come home safely.  They know this too, which is what makes their decision to serve in a time of war so courageous – so heroic.  But they gain comfort in knowing that our concern for their welfare is unremitting, and that if they are missing or captured we will not rest until we find them – even as the conflicts recede into history.

That is why, every day, American service personnel and civilian experts around the world are sparing no effort to locate and identify the remains of those who did not return in conflicts past and present.  These activities have intensified in scope and sophistication over the years, involving forensic anthropologists, underwater archeologists, and many others.  Since we gathered here for last year’s POW-MIA Recognition Day, teams from the Department of Defense have accounted for 66 formerly missing Americans.  Fifteen of those found and returned to their families fought in the Vietnam War.  Sixteen fought in the Korean War.  Thirty-four fought in the Second World War.  And one man fought in the First World War.  This is slow and painstaking work.  We pursue it doggedly.  The missing and their families deserve no less.

Thomas Lynch wrote that it is “the longstanding right of the living to declare the dead dead.  Just as we declare the living alive through baptisms, lovers in love by nuptials. . . It’s how we assign meaning to our remarkable histories.”  For our nation’s missing-in-action, we must close the gap.  We must find the fallen.  Your love for them will never die, and their country’s efforts to get them home will never cease.

In the current conflicts, improved communication systems and location technology, combined with the U.S. military's domination of the battlefield, has made the taking of American prisoners increasingly rare, while allowing us to more successfully account for our men and women on the battlefield.  And just as our troops know that this country will spare no effort to retrieve their comrades gone missing or captured, our enemies are aware, also. 

We saw this in March 2003 when members of the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company were taken prisoner by Saddam Hussein’s forces during the initial invasion of Iraq.  As one reporter later wrote, “Each jailer seemed increasingly desperate to pass off the captives to someone else for fear of the consequences of being discovered by the approaching American troops.” 

We must never grow complacent when it comes to protecting and accounting for our men and women on the front lines, given the nature of the conflicts we are in and the enemy we face – one not known for taking or keeping prisoners.  Our adversaries are on notice: just as our President and our military are committed to upholding the values of this nation and the laws of armed conflict in the treatment of prisoners, so too, will we hold them fully and completely responsible for how they deal with any U.S. troops that may come under their control.

I would close by coming back to the men and women being honored today.  This week, we dedicated a corridor in the Pentagon to an exhibit on America’s POW-MIAs, as General Cartwright mentioned.  The story told in this display is one of service, sacrifice, and keeping the faith.  It describes family members and other citizens banding together to establish the advocacy groups we know today – they help ensure that the U.S. government does everything it can to find MIAs and help POWs during their captivity.  After today’s ceremony, I encourage all of you to pass into the building and view the exhibit.

We have learned much about war, and about the courage and honor possible in war, from our former POWs.  They had an ability to endure that, in so many cases, came from their having faith in one another.  Memoirs by a host of former captives from the Vietnam War tell of how prisoners in that conflict managed to communicate, by tapping in code through prison walls, or by other secret means, so as to maintain esprit de corps over long years of confinement.  They drew upon inner resources both mental and spiritual.  They passed on to one another sustaining truths: that a human being can maintain integrity even amid mistreatment; can fight loneliness; can conquer a situation so fundamentally unfair.

These are timeless and universal thoughts.  So universal that one even dares to hope that those far from the battlefield – those at home who suffered and still feel the painful loss – may find solace in hearing them.  The late Vice Admiral James Stockdale, eight years a prisoner of war, recounted that he was at his lowest physical and emotional ebb in the Hanoi Hilton, when a comrade slipped him a roughly scrawled note with words from a poem he had remembered:

“It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishment the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.”

This department’s commitment to prisoners of war, the missing, and their families, is deep and abiding – a reflection of the incalculable debt that shall always be owed to them by the people of the United States of America. 

Thank you.

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