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Vietnam War Congressional Commemoration

Good afternoon.  Speaker Boehner, Leader Pelosi, Leader Reid, thank you.  Thank you for your leadership – oh, I’m sorry, Leader McConnell also here, sir – your commitment to the men and women of the Department of Defense – for which we are ever grateful – and your work to honor veterans from the Vietnam era and other wars. 

Members of Congress, distinguished guests, colleagues from the Department of Defense past and present, members of the Vietnam Commemoration Advisory Committee… thank you for being here today.  Thank you to the organizers and commemorative partners of this important event, and thousands like it across the country, and the entire Vietnam commemoration effort.  And, most importantly, thank you to the Vietnam-era veterans and their families who join us – you honor us with your presence. 

In a year of anniversaries – for this year also marks the 150th anniversary of the end of our Civil War, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the 65th anniversary of the start of the Korean War – today we gather to remember the Vietnam War, and to honor those who served in it.

We remember the 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s Executive Order establishing the Vietnam Service ribbon.  And we honor our 7.2 million living Vietnam-era veterans, their fallen comrades-in-arms, including those still unaccounted for, and the families of all who served.

That era’s proud soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen are part of a deep line of warriors – patriots who served and fought in Lexington and Concord, at Gettysburg and Midway, at Ia Drang and Khe Sanh, and, more recently, in Fallujah and Helmand.

Some of those Vietnam veterans are here today.  Some bear the wounds of war or the wear of age.  Some carry with them memories of fallen comrades – American fathers, uncles, brothers, and sisters who did not make it home.  And others proudly wear Vietnam Veteran lapel pins and Gold Star buttons to remember the service and sacrifice of years past.

On behalf of President Obama and the entire Department of Defense, I thank all of you for your service.  I thank you for those sacrifices.  And I thank you for the lessons that you’ve taught all of us and continue to teach us. 

One of the reasons the United States has excelled is that, as a nation, we learn and innovate.  And one reason why we have the finest fighting force the world has ever known, is that our military is a learning organization.  We learn from successes, we learn from setbacks….we take the time to delve into our experiences and always strive to do better.

The Vietnam War taught us many lessons – many hard-won, some difficult to swallow – but all of them have made us a better country and a better military.  And there are two that I believe are particularly important to remember this day.

First, we leave no one behind.  We are not the only military with that ethos, nor are we the only nation with a POW/MIA accounting effort.  But there are few that have such a steadfast and sustained commitment, which is about more than raising the iconic POW/MIA symbol up on flag poles around the nation.  It’s about the promise we make and we work hard to keep. 

Thanks in part to the staunch advocacy of Vietnam veterans and POW/MIA families, the Department of Defense has over 650 people devoted to accounting for the missing and searching for, recovering and identifying their remains, including the 1,627 still missing from the Vietnam War.  I saw some of that continuing effort on my trip to Hanoi last month where I visited one of our POW/MIA accounting offices.

The second lesson is that we must support our warriors, regardless of our feelings about the war.  Unfortunately that was a lesson some learned the hard way in the Vietnam-era.  But I am pleased by – and again, we have many Vietnam-era veterans to thank for it – the support for today’s veterans and servicemembers, including the post-9/11 GI Bill, and how our troops today are welcomed home.  And I want to take this opportunity to thank you, our Vietnam-era veterans, for that lesson, and to again welcome all of you home.

Vietnam-era veterans and their families helped America learn those lessons…and ensure we will never forget them.  Some do so quietly, mentoring today’s men and women in uniform or traveling to airports to welcome home those returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Some do so more publicly, continuing their service in government offices in this Capitol, elsewhere in Washington, and across the country, including my colleagues Secretary John Kerry, and Senator John McCain.

And some are with us today.  And I want to take a moment to say a few words about the next speaker.  Chuck Hagel was a soldier, he’s been a Senator and a distinguished Secretary of Defense, and he remains one of our most thoughtful statesmen – and I’m proud to have been able to call him a friend for many years.  In Vietnam, then-Sergeant Hagel led an infantry squad during the fighting that followed the Tet Offensive.  Stories of his bravery and sacrifice there are well known.  And throughout the rest of his life in public service, Chuck dedicated himself to those who served, to normalizing and improving relations with Vietnam, to bringing home those still missing, and to ensuring we remember the Vietnam War’s lessons.  

Thank you, Chuck.  And thank you again to all the Vietnam-era veterans here and around the country.  May God bless you and your families for years to come.