As we all know here this morning, things don't just happen. And I want to begin with acknowledging the leadership of Jan Scruggs and many sitting here in the front row who began this magnificent journey of building a Vietnam Veterans Memorial many, many years ago.
And to you, Jan, and to your board and co-founders, we continue to acknowledge you and thank you for what you do for all of us. And I think this event this morning, recognizing a very special group of individuals, is further testimony to what you started a long, long time ago. And those of us who've had the privilege of being part of that acknowledge it and are grateful for the opportunity to be part of what you started. So to Jan, thank you.
I also want to use this moment to acknowledge and put endorsement in for the continued efforts many of you here to finally get this education center built here at the Vietnam Veteran Memorial. I know so many of you continue to work it, and we'll continue to be involved, Jan, and support you on this. It needs to be done. We're close. So we need to push it over the line, and we'll do it.
I also today want to acknowledge some of America's most respected and most effective military leaders over a number of years, General McCaffrey, General Petraeus, General Casey, for your contributions and your leadership and what you've meant to our country. We thank you, as well as other veterans who are here and who have done so much and given so much to this country and continue to contribute in very important ways for all of us at a defining time
We’re at a defining time in our world, a time when the world is reorienting, it is going through a process of building a new world order. Probably we've not seen anything quite like this since after World War II. So this is an important time. This is a time for all of our leaders to step forward. And the wisdom and experience that we have not just represented here, but in our country today is as probably significant as we've ever had in our society. And to bring that together and listen to our leaders is particularly important.
I want to acknowledge our friends from Australia here, our allies and partners and friends who have been with the United States in all of our wars, all of our efforts, and to you, sir, and your country, we thank you very much. Thank you.
I appreciate in particular the opportunity to join you here at this special memorial, this special commemoration, this special event this morning to honor and remember the more than 6,800 American service members who have given their last full measure of devotion over the last 13 years to this country.
It is right, as Jan Scruggs noted, that we gather to read the names of the fallen from our most recent wars at this wall. And as we all know, this wall records the names of a previous generation of Americans who fought and died on a distant battlefield. Whether they patrolled the jungles of Vietnam, the streets of Fallujah, or the mountain paths of the Korangal Valley, they are the quiet heroes who served and who died in the service of something greater than themselves, the service of their country.
Speaking at this memorial on Veterans Day in 1988, President Ronald Reagan said, "Our nation itself is testimony to the love our veterans have had for it, our country, and for us. Our liberties, our values, all for which America stands is safe today because brave men and women have been ready to face the fight at freedom's front."
These brave men and women also fought for another ideal, one that has remained constant across generations of America fighting men and women. They fought to safeguard the lives of their comrades in arms. I had the honor to serve alongside some of those quiet heroes in Vietnam, as many of you did, and I have the privilege of meeting and working with these quiet heroes every day as Secretary of Defense.
They consider themselves ordinary people. They view themselves that way because they are humble, they are patriotic, and they are selfless, but those who marched off to serve their country are far from ordinary. They never asked for, nor expected anything in return for their service, other than respect and dignity. Unlike many in my generation, today's veterans return to a country that truly, truly appreciates their service and recognizes the sacrifices they've made for all of us. They are treated with the dignity, respect and appreciation that they have earned and they deserve.
As the United States winds down the longest period of sustained combat in our nation's history, America's obligations to those who answered the call to serve -- more than 2 million Americans -- are only just beginning. This nation has a sacred obligation to take care of them and their families for however long is necessary. It is part of the compact that we make with those who step forward to safeguard our freedom. Caring for these returning veterans, those who bear the visible and the invisible scars and wounds of war, is a solemn responsibility for America.
Whether the names of the fallen are etched on this wall behind me or are spoken today, their spirit, their lives each live on. We will never forget them. We must not forget them.
As civil war veteran and former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said once, many Memorial Days ago, "Our dead brothers still live for us, and they bid us think of life today, not death, of life to which in their youth they lent to passion and joy of their spring."
This Memorial Day, as we honor our fellow countrymen who sacrificed everything, we strive to be worthy of their great sacrifices as we all work toward making a better future for all mankind. God bless you all. Thank you all for your continued service to this country. And thank you for allowing me to be a part of it this morning. Thank you very much.