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50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War Commemoration

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, DC, Monday, May 28, 2012

I’m honored to be here today with all of you as we begin the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of America’s participation in the Vietnam War. 

Memorial Day is an appropriate opportunity for all Americans to come together, to pay tribute to all those who have fought and died for our country, across more than two hundred years, and on battlefields near and far. 

America’s sons and daughters have made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our liberties, to give all of us a better life.

At this hour, at this hallowed and haunting memorial, we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War – a war that occupies a central place in the American story. 

Millions of Americans were sent across the Pacific to a little known place to fight in the service of the country they loved. 

Not only at this hour, but at all times, we remember and carry in our hearts the more than 58,000 Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen whose names are inscribed on this dark wall for eternity.

For me personally, this is an especially moving moment.  As a member and later chairman of the Vietnam Era Veterans Caucus in the House of Representatives, I had the honor to work on the endowment of this memorial.  To see the names of soldiers that I served with inscribed on this wall.  To see the names of officers who went through ROTC with me at Santa Clara inscribed on this wall.  To know my good friend Everett Alvarez, a hero from this war and a classmate of mine, who served with great distinction in that war.

No memorial better reflects the pain of the sacrifices that were made.

Many more came home from that war to a country that failed to fully acknowledge their service and their sacrifice, and failed to give them the honor they so justly deserved. 

That experience, that failure to thank those who were willing to put their lives on the line for this country, was burned into the soul of my generation.  For too many Vietnam veterans, the recognition of their bravery came too late.  

The Vietnam generation, my generation – is graying now.   But this commemoration effort gives the country an opportunity, today and in the years ahead, to try and right the wrongs of the past, to remember those who served in this war and what they did for us, their service, and their sacrifice on our behalf. 

Last week, I had the opportunity to join the President in paying tribute to a fallen member of that generation, Specialist Les Sabo, who posthumously received the Medal of Honor. 

Les Sabo died in Vietnam saving his brothers-in-arms.  And it was those same brothers of his from the 101st Airborne Division who campaigned to re-open the Medal of Honor process for Les more than ten years ago.  The story of Les in many ways is the story of the Vietnam war.  We forgot, and now we finally remember.

Next week, as Secretary of Defense I will have the opportunity to travel to Vietnam to continue strengthening the growing ties our two countries have been re-establishing since in 1995.  We have come a long way since the war ended, and it was veterans of Vietnam who led the way for our two nations to begin the process of trying to heal the wounds of the war. 

Today, Department of Defense personnel are working diligently to identify and locate the remains of fallen service members missing in action in Vietnam.  Let me assure you: this sacred mission will continue until all of our troops come home and are accounted for. 

It reflects the determination of our military and our country to leave no man or woman behind, and to honor those who have honored us with their service, valor, and sacrifice.

During the last decade of war, another generation of warriors has answered the call to fight and sacrifice on foreign soil.  They have done all this country has asked them to do and more. 

As they have returned from overseas, America, with our Vietnam veterans front and center in the effort – has embraced this new greatest generation of service members, showing that we have learned perhaps the most important lesson to come out of the Vietnam war – the debt we owe to those who fight and who die for our freedoms.

The President and Mrs. Obama have done so much to encourage Americans to do more to recognize and support these great patriots, they have led the fight for the men and women who fought for our nation. 

As this country faces tough economic times, we must do everything we can to ease the transition of the thousands of service members who come home from war to civilian life.  They fought for us.  The least we can do is fight for them.

It is now my honor to introduce one of those Soldiers who fought in Vietnam, Senator Chuck Hagel.  He led an infantry squad in Vietnam during the bloody fighting following the Tet Offensive.  Like millions of our generation, he demonstrated bravery, patriotism, and heroism on the battlefield, and he also demonstrated that bravery and that patriotism and that heroism in the life of public service that has followed. 

Chuck, we thank you for honoring us with your presence today, and thank you for your commitment to the United States of America.

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