Vietnam veteran and former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel returned to the Pentagon today to join Defense Secretary Ash Carter in officially opening an exhibit honoring the estimated 9 million Americans who served in the Vietnam War.
A two-time Purple Heart recipient, Hagel joined Carter and other Pentagon officials for the official ribbon cutting of the display, which spans a swath of a third-floor corridor.
“Today’s unveiling and the governmentwide commemoration that accompany it are an important part of our commitment to honor veterans from Vietnam and their families, for service, for valor, for sacrifice,” Carter said.
Carter, who served as Hagel’s deputy, described the 24th defense secretary as “one of modern America’s finest public servants.”
“From his bravery and sacrifice in Vietnam to his continued leadership in and out of elected office and here as secretary of defense, Chuck’s been dedicated to those who serve, to bringing home those still missing, and to making sure we remember the lessons of yesterday’s wars so we can ensure the continued excellence of today’s military and DoD,” Carter said.
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Carter Notes Importance of Pentagon Vietnam Exhibit
Standing before large models of Huey helicopters and other life-size combat depictions, Carter noted that while the hallway displays celebrate some of the military’s finest accomplishments, they also aim to serve as reminders of difficult lessons learned along the way.
Hard Lessons Learned
Hagel elaborated on some of these lessons.
“This exhibit really and truly represents the service of a generation of citizens who were asked to do something for their country at a difficult time, as difficult a time as probably we’ve seen in our lifetimes,” he said.
At the war’s peak, some 500,000 U.S. troops were in Vietnam. Hagel acknowledged the war’s lack of popularity, -- noting that it drove a president from office when Lyndon B. Johnson chose not to run for re-election in 1968, and that America saw the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy that same year as cities went up in flames during riots.
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Former Defense Secretary Discusses Societal Opinion of Vietnam War
“There was tremendous social unrest everywhere, and that too was happening in our armed forces,” Hagel said. “It was a difficult time inside those armed forces for our officers, our enlisted and with a real question as to what the clear purpose of the war was.”
Hagel’s Reflection of War
Hagel reflected on his personal role in the conflict as a witness to uncommon courage and quiet heroes, draftees from across the country with little understanding of why they were there, though steeled with a commitment to the mission.
“It took many, many years before our country and our history was corrected … and probably most importantly, the warrior was separated from the war,” Hagel recounted. “This exhibit very much reflects all that and pays tribute to men and women who never asked for anything in return. They never came back to any expectations -- they wanted to get on with their lives and put that war experience behind them.”
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Former Defense Secretary Explains Vietnam Exhibit’s Meaning
Presidential Proclamation, Exhibit’s Impact
By presidential proclamation issued May 25, 2012, the 50th anniversary commemoration extends from Memorial Day 2012 through Veterans Day 2025. The Vietnam War Commemoration staff, in collaboration with the Pentagon corridor committee, Office of the Secretary of Defense graphics experts and service historians, helped to bring the exhibit project to fruition.
“Vietnam-era veterans and their families have helped America learn those lessons to ensure we never forget them,” Carter said. “Throughout this hallway, and the ongoing commemoration of the Vietnam War and those who served, future service members and civilians will continue to remember those lessons for years to come.”