Distinguished guests, General Dempsey, veterans, family members, representatives from veterans service organizations and the national POW/MIA community: it is an honor and a privilege to join all of you for this important observance.
Earlier this year we marked the 40th anniversary of Operation Homecoming, when hundreds of American prisoners of war were brought out of Vietnam to freedom. Many were aviators whose planes had been downed over North Vietnam, aviators such as Rear Admiral Bob Shumaker, who is with us here today.
He, along with hundreds of other service members and civilians, endured unspeakable cruelty, attempts at political exploitation, and years of confinement. But through courage, resilience, and determination, they survived to return home to a grateful nation.
Each POW/MIA Recognition Day, we reaffirm America’s gratitude to all service members throughout our history. These service members who experienced the horror of wartime captivity, and we stand with the families of all who remain missing in action.
We honor patriots like my friend Navy Commander Everett Alvarez, Jr., who was also on the airlift of prisoners out of Hanoi during Operation Homecoming. Commander Alvarez had been shot down while flying a mission after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, and endured more than eight terrible years as a prisoner of war – virtually the entire length of the Vietnam conflict.
Like many of his fellow POWs, Commander Alvarez continued serving his nation after his return. As a Naval officer, Deputy Director of the Peace Corps, and Deputy Administrator of the Veterans Administration, he sustained his commitment to America’s service members, our country, veterans, their families, and all that he has held dear in his life.
Over the years I have had the privilege of building friendships with many Vietnam War POWs like Ev Alvarez, Senator John McCain, and some of his cellmates in the Hanoi Hilton – including Orson Swindle, who later served as a Commissioner on the Federal Trade Commission, and the late Air Force Colonel Bud Day.
I have always admired the tremendous inner strength that enabled these men to survive harsh physical and mental abuse. As Ev Alvarez once said, “you have nothing to fight back with except your will.”
Americans in uniform today are inspired by the fierce resolve of generations of American POWs. We also draw inspiration from the bonds of camaraderie, compassion, and love that prompted our POWs to care for each other, and sustain each other, through these terrible, terriblemonths and years of hardship.
These bonds are fundamental to the strength of the American military. They’re fundamental to the strengths of the American character.They underpin who we are and everything we do, and everything we believe. We protect each other. And we vow to never leave a fellow service member behind.
That commitment extends to Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by enemy forces in Afghanistan more than four years ago. Our hearts today are with the Bergdahl family. Using our military, intelligence, and diplomatic tools, the United States is continuing its strongefforts to secure Sergeant Bergdahl’s safe release.
Our commitment to leave no service member behind also extends to the more than 80,000 fallen Americans who still remain missing in action.
Over the years, the Department has made progress in fulfilling this responsibility, as we methodically and painstakingly recover the remains of the fallen, and bring them back to their families.
Every day, hundreds of DoD personnel all over the world, including forensic anthropologists, underwater archeologists, and many other experts, continue to scour the globe in laboratories and elsewhere in order to identify the missing.
Since this time last year we have been able to account for 61 service members from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
Each case represents years of effort – meticulous work piecing together evidence and clues from across manycontinents.
Yesterday at Arlington Cemetery, two airmen from World War II, who were for decades listed as missing in action, were finally given the full honors they so richly deserve after their remains were recovered in the rugged mountains of Papua New Guinea by DoD personnel.
I am deeply aware that for every family that has received the news of a successful mission, there are thousands still waiting for a breakthrough. That includes many of the families here today.
Words and promises cannot make the lingering uncertainty, the headache, and the heartache go away. But I hope it provides comfort to know that as long as members of our Armed Forces remain unaccounted for, the Department of Defense will do everything--whatever we can to find them and bring them home.
There’s much more hard work to be done, but we will not rest until we fulfill this pledge – no matter how long it takes. For despite the passage of time, the memories of those missing in action still burn bright – and their stories still inspire new generations of Americans.
One of those stories goes back sixty years, to the days after the Korean War armistice was signed, when a group of American POWs made the long journey on foot from North to South Korea. They had survived years of torture and starvation, and they carried with them a hand-carved crucifix, nearly four feet long.
When they finally made it across the no-man’s land that separated North and South, they told anyone who would listen to them– from Army officials to war correspondents – the story behind that crucifix. It was the story of an Army Chaplain from a little town in Kansas who had saved their lives, and hundreds of other lives, in that communist prison camp.
They spoke of how this chaplain would steal food from prison guards to feed starving GIs, and taught them to boil water so they could fend off dysentery. As prisoners began freezing to death in the cold winter nights, he would offer his own clothes to keep them warm.
In one of the darkest places on earth, this man – Father Emil Kapaun – had given the gift of faith and moreto his fellow prisoners. And those prisoners clung to that faith even after Father Kapaun was murdered by his captors, and buried in an unmarked grave.
Father Kapaun’s remains were never recovered, but his story was never forgotten. For years, his fellow POWs made it their cause to convince the nation’s leaders to award Father Kapaun the Medal of Honor. As they aged, new generations took on themission. And earlier this year, they finally succeeded when Father Kapaun was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Obama.
In that dream fulfilled, we all can find hope, comfort, and faith restored. Today, as the POW/MIA flag is raised in communities across America, we pledge to live by its creed, “You are Not Forgotten.” We are committed to our former POWs, our missing, and their families, just as we are committed to those who wear the uniform today.
May God bless and watch over all of them, and this great nation.