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Remarks by Deputy Secretary of Defense Carter, Vice Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Winnefeld and former Sen. Hagel at the Department of Defense's National POW/MIA Recognition Day Ceremony

Presenters: Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter; Vice Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. James Winnefeld; and former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.; and Chaplain Major Jason Nobles, command chaplain, U.S. Army Military District of Washington
September 21, 2012

            (UNKNOWN):  Chaplain Major Jason Nobles, command chaplain, U.S. Army Military District of Washington. 

            CHAPLAIN MAJOR JASON NOBLES:  Let me pray.  Almighty God, we pause in humble reverence this morning to give You thanks for the gift of freedom that we enjoy as Americans, knowing that we are free and remain free because of the faithful service of those in our military. 

            We pray for those currently deployed, for success in their mission and a safe return.  In the same breath, we lift up the many servicemembers who are either prisoners of war or missing in action. 

            We pray for strength, courage and perseverance for them, their families, and the countless Americans who are working tirelessly to bring everyone home. 

            Lord have mercy on us and bless us in this most noble task.  We entrust all of this in Your powerful hands.  Amen. 

            (UNKNOWN):  Please be seated. 

            Ladies and gentlemen, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Winnefeld.  (Applause.) 

            VICE CHAIRMAN JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF ADMIRAL JAMES WINNEFELD (USN):  Ladies and gentlemen, good morning. 

            Senator Hagel, what a very special honor and privilege it is for us to have you with us here this morning. 

            My good friend, Deputy Secretary Carter and Mrs. Carter, distinguished guests, thank you all for joining us here on this absolutely sparkling, beautiful morning as we pause to honor the thousands of Americans who have served as prisoners of war and to reflect on their memory and recommit ourselves to accounting for the 83,000 who remain missing even today. 

            I offer a special welcome to the members of this audience who have served as POWs, proud Americans whose service, sacrifice and patriotism when the chips were down and service to your country took on a whole new meaning in the most difficult of circumstances.  We honor you this morning. 

            And to the many families who are with us today, who never gave up hope for the captured and who still hold out hope for the missing, your unwavering and steadfast love and hope is an inspiration to us all. 

            Almost two months ago I had the privilege of participating in a ceremony commemorating the 59th anniversary of the Korean War armistice, where we saluted brave warriors of the past and honored those who gave the last full measure of devotion. 

            My father was one of the lucky ones who came home from that war.  But almost six decades after the guns fell silent, we're reminded that many of our brothers in arms from the Korean War remain unaccounted for. 

            Today almost 8,000 remain missing in action from the Korean War, names that are a testament to the inscription on the Korean War Memorial:  "Freedom is not free." 

            Yet, our commitment to redoubling our accounting efforts, including things like advances in technology, has continued to yield results. 

            Just last month the remains of Corporal Clarence Huff, a Marine from Brunswick, Ohio, who was reported missing in action since the India Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division came under fire at the Chosin Reservoir in November 1950.  His remains were returned to Ohio and given a proper burial with full military honors. 

            Thanks to the efforts of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, led by my good friend here, and advances in identification technology, Corporal Huff's remains were identified and his family gained the closure they so greatly deserved. 

            So we owe General Kelly McKeague and his wonderful team that does this a vote of thanks. 

            Corporal Huff's story is indeed a reminder of the pledge to our men and women in uniform, to our ideal of never leaving a comrade behind.  And thankfully it's a story that has echoed for many other of our brave warriors from World War II to our present conflicts, where our steadfast commitment to the mission of accountability remains. 

            We recognize there's more work to do, more families who deserve closure, and many more warriors who deserve proper military honors and recognition for their selfless service. 

            Today we recommitment ourselves to that work and to our promise to our families that we will keep our promise to their loved ones. 

            Thank you again for sharing this remembrance with us today and for your continued commitment to those who have worn and those who currently wear the current -- the cloth of our nation -- with such honor. 

            And it's now my honor to introduce a public servant and a leader and a friend who demonstrates his own unyielding commitment to those same men and women in uniform every day.  Ladies and gentlemen, the deputy secretary of defense, the Honorable Ash Carter.  Thank you. 

            (Applause.) 

            DEPUTY SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASHTON B. CARTER:  Thank you, Admiral Winnefeld, Sandy. 

            Senator Hagel -- Chuck -- other friends, members of Congress, senior defense officials, members of the armed forces, veterans, members of the diplomatic community, thank you all for coming today. 

            We join together today as we do every year to pay tribute to the POW/MIA commitment and the POW/MIA community.  I'd like to begin by recognizing the heart of that community, the former prisoners of war and the families of Americans still missing in action, recognizing especially those here in the audience today.  We honor your courage and strength. 

            As president -- as the president said in his announcements proclaiming today National POW/MIA Recognition Day, institutions across the country today raise the stark black and white banner that is America's reminder of its prisoners of war and missing in action. 

            Today the flag flies over the White House, over the Capitol dome, the Departments of State, Defense and Veterans Affairs, the Selective Service System headquarters, the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. 

            But it also flies over post offices, schools, cemeteries, and state and local institutions throughout the country.  It is there so that in cities and town across America people will look up, and catching sight of the flag, pause before it.  They'll think of sacrifices made.  They'll think of you and of your loved ones. 

            We have all relied on them -- you son or daughter, sister or brother, father or mother -- for our safety and security.  Courageous men and women throughout American history have answered the call to serve. 

            And just as they committed themselves to this country, so this country will never tire and never rest until each and every one of them is returned home. 

            The Department of Defense and this country make that commitment to each servicemember and to their family. 

            In the Department of Defense we have over 600 staff devoted to the more than 80,000 American servicemembers who remain unaccounted for from the wars of the past century.

            Over the last months a number of our servicemembers have come home:     Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Clarence Blanton, killed in Laos in 1968.  Army Corporal Luther James, captured in Korea in 1950.  Army Air Force's 1st Lieutenant Warren G. Moxley, who died in Germany in 1945.  All were returned home and buried with military honors. 

            In February we located and recovered the remains of Army Staff Sergeant Ahmed al-Taie, who was captured in Iraq in 2006.  We are still searching for three Defense Department contractors who were lost in Iraq and whose remains have not yet been located. 

            Our most pressing concern at this moment is for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by enemy forces in Afghanistan in June of 2009.  We are doing everything possible to locate and bring him home and are keeping his family fully informed. 

            Words do not easily speed or make easier the painful passage of time that comes with waiting.  But reflections from former prisoners of war offer some lessons about how to endure life's challenges, even those most difficult moments and years of waiting, of uncertainty, of physical and emotional trial. 

            In reflecting on his experience in the Hanoi Hilton, Senator John McCain said that the only way to endure such difficulty is through, and I quote, "the act of being constant to something greater than yourself -- to a cause, to your principles, to the people on whom you rely and who rely on you in return." 

            The Hanoi Hilton prisoners trusted one another.  They worked together and they overcame mental and physical trials.  Their relationships gave them strength in the face of adversity. 

            We who are gathered here today are also being constant to something greater than ourselves -- to our servicemembers and their families, to the cause they serve.  May the people across the country who will look up today at the POW/MIA flag pause in reflection and remember the sacrifices made to defend the United States. 

            That's a powerful idea.  Perhaps it can even help ease the difficult passage of time for the POW/MIA community here even if just for a while. 

            Ladies and gentlemen, it's now my honor to introduce our special guest, a soldier from Vietnam and a servant to the nation, former Senator Chuck Hagel. 

            This past Memorial Day, Senator Hagel joined President Obama at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to mark the 50th anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War.  And in a moment I and Stephanie and no one present there will ever forget, welcome home and honor at last those who served there in Vietnam. 

            As a soldier back then, Senator Hagel led an infantry squad in Vietnam during the bloody fighting following the Tet Offensive.  He and his brother, Tom, demonstrated bravery, patriotism and heroism on the battlefield.  Throughout his life, Senator Hagel dedicated himself to those who served in Vietnam and eventually to normalizing relations with Vietnam. 

            His efforts laid the groundwork for the expanding cooperation we have with Vietnam today, which contributed greatly to the recovery of our missing servicemembers. 

            Senator, thank you for everything you've done and still do for our great nation, and for joining us today.  It's an honor to have you with us. 

            (Applause.) 

            (MILITARY SALUTE) 

            FORMER SEN. CHUCK HAGEL, R-NEB.:  Ladies and gentlemen, good morning. 

            To my friend who is one of our nation's exceptional public servants, Ash Carter, thank you.  Thank you for your continued service and your most generous introduction. 

            Admiral Winnefeld, thank you for your continued service and leadership at a vital time in our world and our nation's history. 

            To the active duty men and women in uniform, thank you all for what you continue to do, the sacrifices you make and the family sacrifices that are always the most difficult part of service in the military. 

            And especially to those we not only honor today but recognize and thank, our former POWs, their families, our MIAs and their families.  We are grateful.  You have continued to help shape a nation.  And you have given inspiration and guidance and grace to a nation. 

            We live at a very complicated, combustible, uncertain and dangerous time.  The military and those who serve in the military understand that as well or better than any citizen. 

            When we assess the world today and we see the dark clouds that hang over the world, it is easy to essentially walk away or even give up at certain times in certain places. 

            (PLANE FLIES OVERHEAD) 

            But over the history of this republic, those who have served our country in uniform is a group of people and their families who never did.  Each generation is faced with sets of challenges.  That is not new.  The complications of those challenges and different challenges is new.  But for a society, for a culture, for a country to not only be successful but have a future and take on the responsibilities of leadership, it is critically important to have institutions where you're citizens can place their trust, their confidence and their hope. 

            Today, the U.S. military is the one institution in this country by any metric that still enjoys overwhelming support, confidence and trust of the American people.  No other institution in America can say that. 

            That is a result of generation after generation after generation of commitment, to what Ash Carter noted in his -- quoting my friend and former colleague John McCain said, what any POW has said, believes, lived, continues to say:  If there is anything more important in a society than to anchor that society with a belief in something greater than ones self interest in the future for your children, for your family, for the world, I don't know what it is. 

            This institution, the military, all who sacrifice and serve daily, who have done that for years and through wars have built that institution that still anchors more than ever confidence and trust in our -- our free people, in our free society, and not only how we serve that society but how we keep that free society.  Imperfect issues, problems, like all institutions, the world is imperfect.  People are imperfect. 

            But it is the POWs and their families, MIAs, those who serve who constantly remind this country of what's good, of what's strong, what's vital, what's decent.  In spite of all the problems, in spite of all the imperfections, you build relationships around the world, you build relationships with each other connecting the common interest of people. 

            When you really analyze civilizations and people, we're not all that different.  Maybe we believe in different gods, we come from different tribes, we are forged as a result of different influences, but in the end, at least this former United States senator has never seen anywhere in the world -- and I've been to a lot of countries -- any society, any culture, individuals who don't basically believe in the same thing:  family, future, your children. 

            And often we tend to dismiss that understanding and we allow ourselves and our countries and our policies to drift and be consumed with and dominated by and dictated by differences. 

            The fundamental lessons that our former POWs have always brought to our country, and I think to the world, is a reminder of a decency that is the connecting glue of a society, the decency of people, the decency to each other, the respect and dignity that each individual in the world deserves, regardless of your philosophy about governments or about religion. 

            That vital common denominator is -- is the very, very glue that connects a society.  And when POWs and their families sustain years of separation, having nothing but belief in each other, and when the MIAs and their families have the same, and when men and women serve in the military all over the world separated from their families for so long, that is the vitality of a society.  Imperfect. 

            And when you think about a world that now has 7 billion global citizens, those 7 billion global citizens will grow to 9 billion or 10 billion, all living in a global community, underpinned by a global economy, we are now all part of that community.  We cannot separate ourselves from that community. 

            And when the great issues of our time are to be debated, need to be debated, and all of our citizens have an opportunity to look at our country and where we want to be, it's so vitally important that our leaders remember that whatever policies they develop, they decide, those policies must always be worthy -- must always be worthy of the sacrifices of our men and women and their families in uniform. 

            That -- that is the central, the core responsibility of our leaders. 

            Our men and women who went to war, especially the wars post-World War II -- had nothing to do with making policy.  They understood up front that they would serve this country and they would carry out the policies of an elected democracy, a representative government. 

            That is an astounding leap of faith in your country.  That's an astounding leap of faith in your leaders.  And we have done that pretty well for 250 years. 

            We have made mistakes.  Great powers make mistakes. 

            POWs, MIAs, their families also remind us of great power limitations, and a rather cursory study of history reminds us of that as well.  And that demands wise leadership, that demands a time when we come together as a nation. 

            And as I have noted, when Americans look -- and I think a great deal of the world -- look at examples of that, institutions that build on that, I don't know of an institution more central to that than our armed forces. 

            And who are our armed forces?  Our armed forces are men and women and their families.  That's the blood, the fiber of who America is. 

            So today, thank you for this opportunity.  It's an honor for me.  It's a privilege for me to thank you, and note and recognize what you've done for America and the world.

            God bless you all.  Thank you. 

            (Applause.)

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