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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

Veterans Day and the 30th Anniversary of the Vietnam Memorial Wall
Washington, DC
November 11, 2012

Remarks of Eric K. Shinseki Veterans Day and the 30th Anniversary of the Vietnam Memorial Wall November 11, 2012

Welcome home, everybody.

Barry [General McCaffrey]—thank you for that kind introduction. And thanks, as well, for your many years of leadership in the Army and for this Nation. Your early reputation as a warfighter is part of why I remained in uniform.

  • Jan Scruggs—thank you and your board for your leadership and determination. Because of you, we stand on hallowed ground today;

  • Korean Defense Attaché, Major General Lee Seo-Young—the friendship and alliance of our nations remain as important today as they were when we fought side-by-side, first, in Korea, and then, in Vietnam. Katchi kapshida;

  • General Tilelli—former-Commander, U.N. Command and U.S. Forces, Korea—thank you for your leadership as well;

  • Distinguished war correspondent, Joe Galloway, and his wife, Grace. About three weeks ago, CSM Basil Plumley, 1-7 Cav, was laid to rest at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Vietnam was Basil Plumley's third war: Four combat parachute assaults in World War II and one more in Korea—all before going into the Ia Drang Valley with Hal Moore and the Garry Owen. Joe delivered CSM Plumley's eulogy with all the eloquence and emotion one combat Veteran reserves for another. Joe and Grace, it's good to see you again;

  • Deputy Secretary Scott Gould, Under Secretary Allison Hickey, other VA colleagues;

  • Some very special guests:

    • ➢ Gold Star Mothers—Mary Byers;

    • ➢ Gold Star Wives—Debra Kraus;

    • ➢ Sons and Daughters In Touch—Tony Cordero;

  • Other Veterans service organizations who have helped us to better serve Veterans;

  • And most importantly—fellow Vietnam Veterans and your families;

  • Other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

I'm greatly honored to be here today—as a Vietnam Veteran and as an American who finds personal solace and comfort in this memorial, whenever I visit. It speaks of our generation's honor and sacrifice in war roughly 50 years ago. I first visited this memorial on a summer evening in 1985—nearly three years after its unveiling. I had planned on attending the dedication ceremony in November 1982 with friends from the Pentagon, where we were all assigned. We had eagerly anticipated the ceremony, but as sometimes happens in the military, I received short-notice reassignment orders in June 1982, sending me overseas. Others later described a ceremony that had moved them to tears. Those reports planted the seeds for my own visit here, as a priority.

And so, upon returning to Washington nearly three years later, I came here on that summer evening in 1985. There were no walkway lights then, as I recall. But, in the gathering dusk, from whatever approach I could have taken, this black Wall seemed to emerge out of a cut in the ground and, with the precision of its angles, cast even greater solemnity and power on its surroundings—a mix of emotions about loss, about pain, of innocence ceded, and young lives too soon relinquished.

I was moved. All who fought in Vietnam came home changed—older than our years, tougher, more serious, no less vital—but somehow less lighthearted.

At a distance, the Wall is sternly black. As you get closer, it begins to take on texture as etchings become visible. From six-to-ten feet, the inscriptions are legible—at least, they were when I, and my eyes, were younger.

At last light, I found and touched the names of fellow soldiers:

  • Hilario Leanio and Gary Kawamura—fallen high school friends;

  • Gary Kadetz—one of the first of my 25 West Point classmates to fall in battle;

  • And Medal of Honor recipient Joe Grant, and First Sergeant Yoshiiwa Nagato, both of whom were Golden Dragons with me in the 25th Infantry Division.

As I touched each of their names, I could feel the power of the Wall connecting; each touch brought a face and a flood of memories from times past. Release one name, touch the next, another connection; another flood of memories. Not the Wall, but the names on it, evoked this power of connection. The Wall was merely the medium. It remains so, even today.

Others may attest that, in touching names you know, you reach back in time and connect with those who remain as young and as vibrant as when you last saw them. In that instant, this granite memorial and the visitor are one. No other monument I know of attains this level of intimacy.

I don't know whether Maya Lin, the architect who designed this memorial, intended to create a time capsule of the heart, but that is what this Wall has become for those of us who grew up in Vietnam.

Here, 58,282 fallen Americans remain forever brave, forever young, forever vibrant whenever their names are caressed by fingers of loving spouses, parents, children who grew into adulthood without a parent, mourning friends—hands reaching out in remembrance, in sadness, and in reverence. The Wall does have the power to uplift and offer a measure of healing.

Fifty years. Historians tell us that is officially how much time has passed since Americans first strode into combat in Vietnam. From LZ X-Ray in the Ia Drang, to Nui Ba Dinh, The Iron Triangle, Tuy Hoa, Parrot's Beak, The Rockpile, Ban Me Thuot, Khe Sahn, Con Thien, Dak To, Plei Me, Hamburger Hill, and the thousands of other fighting places between the Delta and the DMZ, in and out of Vietnam, where boys became men in the time it took to chamber that first round. The surprise of Tet '68, unspeakable horrors of the Hanoi Hilton, and the plight of POWs still missing—memories flood as though it were yesterday. Time stands still; images remain sharp and clear. There is power here, as well—that sense of timelessness.

And when generations of Americans too young to know anything about the Vietnam War come to visit—hand-in-hand with someone who might have experienced loss—this Wall must become compassionate teacher. Its primary lesson, here in stark display, is the human cost of war. There is power in this lesson.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, in its continuing mission to honor, educate, and heal, is moving forward with plans to build an education center here at the Memorial. That center will add to the sanctity of this hallowed ground and its inspiration in granite.

Three million men and women in uniform returned from Vietnam, grateful to resume their lives again. We are, in some cases, just now beginning to care for them the way we should have decades ago. We pledge that this work will go on. In caring for them, we honor the 58,282 who are memorialized here.

Today, 50 years later, young Americans, again, shoulder the burdens of a long war—pitting freedom, liberty, and justice against hatred, fear, and oppression. In Iraq and Afghanistan, American men and women have demonstrated America's commitment to its founding principles. We are grateful for their service, their sacrifice, and their commitment. They and their families remind me of another time when young Americans shouldered the burdens of a long war.

Let us vow to better care for this generation. We need your generation, our generation, to help point the way. Thank you for your service. Help us get this right. Welcome home!

God bless the memories of those whose names are inscribed on this Wall, and their families. God bless those who serve and have served our Nation in uniform, and may God continue to bless this great country of ours.

Thank you.