Washington, D.C. —
GENERAL MARTIN E. DEMPSEY: Thanks, Tom. And thank you for your heartfelt words, your service in the Army National Guard, as well as your efforts to bring an education center here on these grounds.
As we gather here at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, our fellow citizens are gathering in backyards, at memorials and in cemeteries around the country.
Across the Potomac at Arlington National Cemetery, soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division and the honor guards of every service are on patrol, making sure that 260,000 flags stand tall, row after row after row.
At Whitepine Cemetery under Montana’s big sky, a widow presses a single American flag into the still, cold ground, just as she did last year and the year before that and the year before that.
Whether by the thousands or by ourselves, we all feel a common resolve on Memorial Day to pause, if only for a moment, and to remember.
This solemn tradition began in 1868 when Decoration Day was proclaimed by General John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Potomac of the Republic. And since our republic’s founding, nearly two and a half million of our countrymen and -women have, in the words of General Logan, made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes.
Some of their names are blasted into this granite wall.
A wall and a war that some have compared to a scar. But history’s temperance allows us to see success where some only saw failure, to see hope where some only saw loss, and to see valor where some simply refused to look.
Vietnam, its veterans and their families are not something apart from us. They are as fundamental to our national story and as instrumental to our national security as any veteran of any war.
The war’s 50th anniversary gives us an opportunity to remember and reflect on their story. In the years ahead, our military family will join with the rest of the American family to remember, to learn and to see ourselves with a renewed perspective.
Right now, we can see the names of so many – too many – on the wall before us. These are America’s sons and daughters. And today’s – and today, their sons, their daughters and even their grandchildren follow them in their service.
My own first personal memory of war was in 1968. As a 16-year-old dishwasher in a small diner in upstate New York, I watched a Vietnam veteran get off the bus, coming back from his first tour of duty in Vietnam, to be met by his family. And at a time in our history when heroes were hard to find, I thought I’d found one. I’d never seen anybody so handsome, so physical, so determined, so proud. Captain John Graham – Captain John Graham was his name. And he is a big part of the reason I went to West Point.
And so in 1971 when I was a plebe at West Point, he was returned from his second tour of duty, having been killed in action as an adviser to the Vietnamese army. And as a plebe I attended that ceremony in a very cold – on a very cold day in the winter of 1971. His son is now on the faculty at West Point.
Warrant Officer Roy Thomas was a gunship pilot with the 25th Infantry Division. He died in battle when his son was four months old. His son is an Air Force colonel on my staff today.
John and Roy are just two examples representative of thousands more who share a martial bond with their forbears.
And whether they served in Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan, whether they returned home or are still awaiting their homecoming, there is no difference in their courage and in their sense of duty.
There is no difference when it comes to fear and suffering on the front lines and on the home front.
There is no difference in the love and the longing of families.
And there is no difference in the wounds that remain, both seen and unseen. However, let us resolve today that there will be one essential difference: that we will never again allow our veterans and their families to be left alone, left to feel somehow outside, left to fend for themselves.
And let us resolve today to not just say, welcome home, but to truly – (applause) – and let us resolve today to not just say, welcome home, but to truly welcome our troops home with the respect and care that they and their families have earned.
Such resolve is evident in those who join us today and who have joined together to support this memorial. We can see it in our president, our first lady, our secretary of veterans’ affairs and our secretary of defense.
I know that Secretary Panetta shares my commitment to keep faith with our military family and keep in touch with the American people. And I know that he shares my unbounded pride in the men and women who serve and who have served in uniform.
Please join me in welcoming our secretary of defense, Leon Panetta. (Applause.)