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Speech
Secretary of Defense Speech

Remarks by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III at a Hall of Heroes Induction Ceremony for Six Medal of Honor Recipients (As Delivered)

July 6, 2022

Good morning, everybody. Secretary Wormuth and General Martin, thank you for your moving tributes to our honorees. And thank you for everything that you do for our soldiers and their families. 

It’s also great to be here with General Milley. Thank you for your partnership and your leadership, Chairman. 

A special welcome to Senator Ernst for joining us today. Thank you for being here to help us recognize some great American heroes.

And let me also welcome the families and the friends of the recipients who are here today, and those who are joining us online. 

The families of our service members might never wear the uniform, but they serve every bit as much as their loved ones. We know how hard it can be, and we can never take it for granted. So from all of us here: thank you for everything that you do. 
    
Now, it’s an honor to spend time with one Medal of Honor recipient. But being here today with today’s gathering of heroes—this is once-in-a-lifetime. 

The Medal of Honor is reserved only for those whose bravery shone out during the chaos and the din of battle. For those who put their lives on the line for their teammates. And for those who charged toward danger—and went far, far above and beyond the call of duty.

And today, as you’ve heard, we have the enormous privilege of adding six Medal of Honor recipients to our Hall of Heroes.

Now, these warriors come from different backgrounds. Their hometowns stretch from New York to Honolulu. They fought in conflicts from Korea to Vietnam to the war against ISIS. And their time in uniform spans nearly 80 years. 

But they are all soldiers, united in their devotion to duty. Duty to carry out their mission. Duty to their teammates and the allies they served alongside. And duty to democracy and to the country that they love. 

And that sense of duty carried them through incredible acts of courage.

You know, none of them set out to be here today. But in these moments, they displayed the rare kind of valor deserving of our military’s highest decoration.

So let me start with Staff Sergeant Edward Kaneshiro. 

In 1966, he was serving in Vietnam as an Infantry Squad Leader. One day in December, he and his squad were out scouting for open terrain. Now they didn’t know it, but North Vietnamese forces were planning to ambush their teammates through a concealed trench system. And when machine-gun fire erupted, his squad moved toward the sound. 

And Sergeant Kaneshiro threw a grenade right through the aperture of the enemy bunker, stopping the ambush where it started. Then he jumped into the trenches and single-handedly destroyed one enemy group after another. 

Because of his bravery, his platoon was able to withdraw from the village. 

Tragically, just a few months later, Sergeant Kaneshiro was killed in action by enemy fire. 

I wish that I could personally thank him for his heroism and selflessness. But it’s a profound honor to have his children with us today. 

And as I told you [inaudible], I know that you didn’t get enough time with your father. And I know that no words of praise can make up for his loss. But I can only imagine how proud you must be of his service. And John, I know how proud your father would be of your own military career, including your two deployments to Operation Iraqi Freedom. You have all carried on his legacy—and lived lives that honor his memory.

Now, like Sergeant Kaneshiro, Specialist Five Dwight Birdwell also jumped into action when his unit came under attack. 

In 1968, during the Tet Offensive, his team was called to protect an allied base near Saigon. They were heavily outnumbered. And almost immediately, his tank commander was critically wounded. And Specialist Birdwell realized that the tank was the only thing between his fellow soldiers and the enemy. 

So Specialist Birdwell fired anything that he could get his hands on: the tank’s main 90-millimeter gun, and then its machine gun. At several points, he hopped out of the commander’s hatch with his M16 to get a better shot. Even when he ran out of ammo, he kept on fighting. 

He made his way to a downed American helicopter and found two machine guns. His comrade took one, and Specialist Birdwell took the other. Now, that gun was shot out of his hands, and Specialist Birdwell was wounded by the shrapnel. But he still refused to leave the battle.

And Specialist Birdwell ran through a storm of enemy fire and found a defensive position to collect and redistribute ammunition to the remaining defenders. Then he led a group of his comrades past enemy lines and threw hand grenades to prevent the enemy from advancing. 

Through it all, Specialist Birdwell continued to fight. 

And when he returned home to Oklahoma, he continued to serve. 

He earned his law degree and went on to preside over the Cherokee Nation’s Judicial Appeals Tribunal as its chief justice.

Specialist Birdwell, you’ve said that you joined the Army because you’d been inspired by the many members of the Cherokee Nation who served before you. I hope that you know that your life of service will inspire generations to come. 

Next is Specialist Five Dennis Fujii. 

And on February 24, 1971, the New York Times reported from South Vietnam on his bravery, saying that, “Pilots here thought [that] the man was a hero.”

Days earlier, Specialist Fujii’s Dust Off crew had taken off in a helicopter to evacuate South Vietnamese military personnel from a raging battlefield. But as they approached, they took intense fire. And their Huey crash-landed. And Specialist Fujii was injured in the wreckage. 

Another American helicopter was able to land nearby, and his crewmates climbed aboard. But Specialist Fujii was taking too much fire. So he signaled to the pilot to take off without him so that the others could get to safety. And once the helicopter flew away, he was the only American left on the battlefield. 

He managed to find a radio—and told aviators not to try to come rescue him. There was too much anti-aircraft fire, he told them. And the battlefield was too hot. 

He was hurt and stranded. But he spent the night and the next day administering first aid to wounded South Vietnamese allies.

Meanwhile, the enemy brought reinforcements. And soon, the encampment was under renewed assault. 

And Specialist Fujii found yet another radio. But he didn’t use it to request a rescue. Instead, he called in enemy positions and directed air strikes against them. 

For the next 17 hours. 

Finally, a helicopter airlifted him out. But again, they sustained enemy fire and crash-landed two and a half miles away. And so, exhausted and wounded, he had to wait another two days before reaching safety.

Specialist Fujii, people have known you to be a hero ever since. And I’m proud to officially add your name to our Hall of Heroes. 

Now, in 1972, Major Duffy was a senior advisor to an elite battalion of the South Vietnamese Army. He trusted his counterparts. And they trusted him. 

On 14 April, their job was simple, but gravely dangerous. They had to hold off North Vietnamese forces at Fire Support Base Charlie for as long as possible. 

So in the early morning hours, Major Duffy snuck up as close as he could to the enemy’s anti-aircraft positions. From there, he called in airstrikes. Major Duffy was wounded by shrapnel, but he refused evacuation.

And when the enemy began bombarding the base with artillery, he put himself in an exposed position so that he could call in more airstrikes. And finally, the enemy fire went silent.

Without a moment to lose, Major Duffy moved allied soldiers to safer positions. And because it was too dangerous for resupply aircraft to land, he redistributed what remained of the ammo.

By the next morning, the North Vietnamese forces resumed their attacks, inflicting even more casualties. Major Duffy organized an evacuation of those who survived. And when they reached the exfiltration site, Major Duffy would not leave until all of his brothers in arms were aboard. 

One of those evacuees is here with us today: Major Duffy’s counterpart, Lieutenant Colonel Le. Gentlemen, thank you both for your service. 

You know, years later, Major Duffy remembered being asked if he wanted to go into that battle. And he replied, “Gotta go in… It’s the job.” 

Major Duffy, it is the job. But few have ever done that job with as much valor. 

So thank you for all that you have done on behalf of our country. 

And today, after delays caused by the pandemic, I’m also glad to officially induct two Medal of Honor recipients into the Hall of Heroes: Colonel Ralph Puckett and Sergeant Major Thomas Patrick Payne. 

Although Colonel Puckett couldn’t be with us in person today, I believe that he’s watching from home. So good morning, Colonel. We’re glad that you’re represented here in person by retired Lieutenant Colonel John Lock. 

So let’s think back on a frigid morning in 1950 during the battle for Hill 205 in the Korean War. First Lieutenant Puckett was commanding the 8th U.S. Army Ranger Company. And he repeatedly put his life at risk, running across an open field and courting enemy fire so that his team could spot the Chinese position. 

And as the battle ground on, he was injured by grenade fragments, but he wouldn’t leave. Instead, he moved from foxhole to foxhole, redistributing ammunition and taking care of his men. 

His compassion and his grit inspired his fellow Rangers. And so when he was wounded again, he ordered his men to leave him behind. But they refused, and they got him out—because Lieutenant Puckett had shown them that true courage means putting your people first. 

After receiving the Medal of Honor last year, Colonel Puckett thought of his team, saying, “The people who earned that medal are the Rangers who did more than I asked.”

That’s absolutely right. But Colonel Puckett, you did so much more than your country asked, 
and we salute your tremendous service. 

Finally, from Colonel Puckett’s heroism in 1950, we fast-forward some 65 years—and shift to Kirkuk Province in northern Iraq and the battle against ISIS. 

In 2015, then-Sergeant First Class Patrick Payne was charged with leading a raid to free Iraqis taken hostage by the jihadists. 

His team knew that ISIS had been holding the prisoners in two buildings. So when Sergeant Payne’s team landed in the dead of night, they cleared one of those buildings and freed the hostages inside. 

But the second building was under intense fire. And Sergeant Payne heard on the radio that his fellow soldiers needed help there. And he remembers turning to one of his teammates and saying, “Let’s get into the fight.”
 
The building was burning. And Sergeant Payne knew that the prisoners locked inside would die if they weren’t freed. So he plunged into the smoke and the enemy fire and found an armored door. 

Behind that armored door were dozens of prisoners trapped. Sergeant Payne then traded his rifle for bolt cutters and again went into the building. It was on fire—and under fire. And he broke the lock on the door. 

Now, by this point, the building was near collapse. The soldiers were ordered to evacuate. But Sergeant Payne ran back in again to save more hostages. And then he went in again, to check that no one was left behind. 

Sergeant Payne had said, “Let’s get into the fight.” And he did—over and over again. And that night, he helped to free 75 prisoners. 

Those men and women and their families will never forget that daring rescue. And neither will we. 

So thank you, Sergeant Payne. And I have to tell you, Sergeant Major Payne, I’m especially grateful because I’m the guy that sent you into that fight as the CENTCOM Commander. And I will remain grateful to you and your comrades for the incredible, incredible work that you did on that night to save lives. So on behalf of our country, thank you for all that you and your teammates have done.

Ladies and gentlemen, President Kennedy once said that “a nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors.”

So today, we etch these soldiers’ names into the Hall of Heroes—to honor their deeds and 
to remember why American warriors fight. We honor these heroes because they represent the very best of us. And we honor these heroes to inspire future generations. 

May we all find the courage to live up to the example that they have set. May we all find the commitment to serve and defend our republic. And may we all find the dedication and duty to our democracy that these heroes have shown.

May God bless our Medal of Honor recipients, and those who served alongside them, and all who love them. 

Thank you very much.