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Remarks by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III at the National Memorial Day Observance at Arlington National Cemetery (As Delivered)

Let’s give the band and the chorus another round of applause. That was absolutely outstanding. 

Good morning. 

President Biden, Dr. Biden, Vice President Harris, Mr. Emhoff, distinguished guests: I am absolutely honored to be here with you this morning. 

And thank you, General Milley, for your leadership.

To our Gold Star families and to all who remember a fallen American hero today: I know that each Memorial Day brings new waves of both pride and pain. 

On behalf of the Department of Defense, please accept our country’s deepest gratitude for all that you have given—and our deepest sympathies for all that you have lost. We pledge again today to ensure that you and your families have the support that you need and deserve. You will always be a part of our military family. And we hold in our hearts all those who fell to defend the country that they loved. 

Each of them has a story. And one of the stories of the graves here at Arlington belongs to Chaplain Charles Watters. 

He was a Catholic priest who signed up to serve during the Vietnam War and to support his teammates in body and soul. After a year-long deployment, he volunteered to extend his tour for another six months. 

And one November day in 1967, his battalion hit fierce fighting. Chaplain Watters ran unarmed into the battle—exposed to mortar fire, bullets, and automatic weapons. He helped get wounded soldiers to safety. And he gave last rites to the fallen.

At one point, he saw a U.S. paratrooper in shock and in the line of enemy fire. Chaplain Watters hoisted the paratrooper on his shoulders and carried him to safety. 

Tragically, later that day, Chaplain Watters was killed. And for his extraordinary heroism, this paratrooper, patriot, and priest who volunteered twice—once to serve, and once to extend his tour—was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. 

This year, our country celebrates the 50th anniversary of our all-volunteer force. 

And the life of Charles Watters offered a preview of the vigor and the valor of the American warriors who have chosen to step up and serve, from 1973 until this day. 

Our all-volunteer force has blended military power with moral power and combined the force of American arms with the strength of people who freely choose to stand guard over our democracy.

In 1970, the Gates Commission recommended eliminating conscription. And its formal report predicted that an all-volunteer force “will strengthen our freedoms”—and our armed forces. 

And it did. 

Every time a qualified American stands up, and raises their hand, and serves with honor—from any corner of the country, from any background, color or creed—this exceptional nation becomes even safer and stronger. 

Every fallen hero has a story. 

It is our duty to remember those we have lost. It is our honor to stand with their families. And it is our sacred obligation to remember all that you have given. 

So let us strive to honor the memory of our fallen by writing the next chapters in America’s story of service. 

Let us stand with all who pledge their lives to defend human freedom. 

And let us come together as one nation to strengthen our democracy. 

Ladies and gentlemen, our Commander-in-Chief has long been a champion of our men and women in uniform and of the military families who serve right alongside them. 

And on this day of sorrow and service, it is my absolute honor to introduce the President of the United States.