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Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Groundbreaking Ceremony for the Education Center

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, Washington, D.C., Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Thank you very much.  Good morning to everyone.  This is a real honor to have the privilege to be able to speak at this event.

Jill Biden, thank you for your great service to the military [and] to our men and women in uniform.  I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.

Ken Salazar, Jack [Senator John Reed], Members of Congress, Mike Mullen, Barry McCaffrey, thank you for your great service.  I want to also recognize Don Young, who, well, we’re probably the old farts in this crowd.  We served together in the Congress when Republicans and Democrats used to talk to each other and we did a lot together.  It’s good to see you here. 

I also want to pay tribute to the Gold Star Families.  The toughest part of my job as Secretary of Defense is having to write the notes to the families of those who have lost a loved one.  It’s tough in part because like Jill and Joe, our son served in Afghanistan, and you know what it means if that were to happen to your own family.  So it’s always difficult for me to be able to find the words to comfort the families.  But one of the things that I often try to include is that I know that their loved one loved them and loved the United States of America and gave their life for everything they loved.  That makes them forever American heroes, and I believe that.  So I thank you for your support and for the sacrifice that your family gave this country.

It is a profound honor and privilege for me to be here and to be able to participate in what I believe is a historic groundbreaking ceremony. 

I want to thank Jan Scruggs.  I’ve been a long time working with him throughout the years, but this would not have happened without his complete dedication to Vietnam veterans, and all of the volunteers of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, for constantly fighting to honor those who have fought for our country.  Your dedication and your commitment has made this day possible and we can’t thank you all enough. 

Today, we’re gathered at the foot of our nation’s most stirring monuments to break ground for a new national landmark.  On this historic site, where we are today, an Education Center will honor the legacy of Vietnam veterans.  But it will also be a place of remembrance for all veterans – for those who fought in our wars, for those who served during the Cold War and for those who are part of the 9/11 generation that has fought for over 10 years, the longest period of warfare in the history of the United States.  But it will also be a site for future generations who are not just going to honor the past, we also have to honor future generations of Americans so that they can learn, and think, and reflect on our nation’s wars and those who fought those wars:  who were they? Why did they fight? 

To every veteran, past and present, the nation expresses our greatest thanks to all of you.  You’ve made America proud.  You and your families can take great pride in what you’ve done to help protect this country.  

This year, we begin the 50th anniversary commemoration of our country’s participation in the Vietnam War.  This is a very special moment for all of us.  We remember the bravery and the heroism involved, and we will never forget the sacrifices that were made in that conflict.

This is for me a very poignant moment.  It’s a special moment for me personally.  I’m a Vietnam-era veteran, like Jack, I did not serve in Vietnam, and I have a very special place in my heart for those who served during that period.  I was a member and later Chairman of the Vietnam-Era Veterans Caucus in the House of Representatives, and I did have the special honor of working on the endowment for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Earlier this year, as Secretary of Defense, I had the opportunity to travel to Vietnam.  It was a strange experience to be in Cam Ranh Bay and to visit Hanoi.  And yet in Hanoi, I met with Department of Defense officials who were there working diligently in Hanoi to locate the remains of service members missing in action in that country and throughout the region.  It is our sacred duty to leave no one behind.  We will not rest until every MIA is brought home.  Every one of them is entitled to the honor due to those who have fought and died for us here at home.  I assure you and I assure every American that your government is committed to the fullest possible accounting of our missing service members from the Vietnam War.

The names of more than 58,000 American heroes lost in that war are inscribed on the Memorial Wall not too far from here.  On the Wall are the names of officers who went through ROTC with me at the University of Santa Clara and the names of soldiers I served with and helped train for that mission.  Everett Alvarez, classmate of mine, and a hero who served with great distinction in that war.  Now and forever, we carry all the names in our hearts of those who served in the war and those who died serving this nation.   

The Wall, as we all know, is a powerful reminder of the price of war.  It also brings to mind a time when our country failed to fully acknowledge the sacrifice of its veterans, and failed to give them the honor they so richly deserved.  Regrettably, for many Vietnam veterans, Americans recognition of the bravery and courage involved in that war came too late. 

The Vietnam generation – my generation – is graying now.  We’re getting older.  Preserving our stories requires more than a place of remembrance; it requires a place for education and understanding.  The sacrifices that were made, the lessons of war that we learned must never be forgotten.  We also know that today’s veterans deserve a healing place of their own. 

Over the past decade of war, a new generation of Americans has answered the call to fight and sacrifice on foreign soil.  They’ve done all this country has asked them to do and more.  Since 9/11, more than 6,600 of our brave men and women have made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.  I am thankful that the Center will include pictures and stories of those fallen warriors, alongside those of heroes from the Vietnam era.

The Center will focus on a divisive time in our nation’s history, from which our country has learned meaningful lessons.  Those lessons are some of the following:  war should always be a last resort;  that when our nation’s leaders send our sons and daughters to fight, we must give them a clear mission to accomplish and we must support them in the battles that we send them to;  that people can oppose a war but they still should support those who fight that war; and that we must always cherish the extraordinary legacy of self-sacrifice and valor that our veterans represent.

That spirit is at the heart of what makes American strong.  In this job as Secretary as Mike Mullen knows, we’ve got some of the most advanced weapons.  We’ve got the greatest ships. We’ve got great fighter planes.  We’ve got the greatest technology of any country in the world.  But none of that would be worth a damn without the men and women in uniform that serve this country.

The author Tim O’Brien, who has captured a number of moving stories of those who fought in Vietnam, once wrote:  “Sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever.  That's what stories are for.  Stories are for joining the past to the future.” 

Ladies and Gentlemen, that is what this Center is all about; it will join the past to the future.  By telling the stories of brave American warriors, past and present, we will help ensure that future generations of citizens of this country never forget the sacrifices of those who paid the ultimate price for their country.  The torch of freedom these heroes carried into battle must never be allowed to fall to the ground.  We have the responsibility to take that torch and pass it on – from generation to generation – so that we never stop fighting for a better and more secure future for our children.  That is the American Dream.  That is our sacred pledge.  That is what we honor today.

God bless our veterans, God bless all of you, and God bless the United States of America.

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