In conjunction with the U.S. observance of Memorial Day in the nation's capital, U.S. President Barack Obama honored all veterans who served in the Vietnam War as the country marked the 50th anniversary of that most internally divisive of all its military conflicts in the 20th century.
Beside the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, aka The Wall, in Washington, Obama delivered a 23-minute speech emphasizing the lessons learned from those who served and how they have shaped the past, present, and future of the U.S.
We honor each of those names etched in stone, Obama said, addressing a vast audience of veterans and their loved ones. Fifty-eight thousand two hundred and eighty-two American patriots -- we salute all who served with them. We stand with the families who love them still.
In the president's remarks, Obama spoke of the significance of the items left behind by visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial site: [In] the simple things you've left behind ... we get a glimpse of the lives you lead. The blanket that covered them as a baby. The baseball bat swung as a boy ... a photo of [a] grandchild that you never met, boots you wore that are caked in mud ... It is here that we feel the depth of your sacrifice. Here we see the a piece of the larger American story.
The overarching theme of Obama's address was the ongoing effort by Vietnam War veterans to persist in telling their stories. The president aimed to clarify misconceptions surrounding the war -- and those who served in it.
One of the most painful chapters in our history was Vietnam, most particularly how we treated our troops who served there, Obama said. You were often blamed for a war you didn't start, and you should have been commended for serving your country with valor.
The president then declared that this would never happen again -- and that a key way to ensure this is to give veterans the chance to tell their own stories.
A central part of this 50th anniversary will be to tell your story the way it should have been told all along, Obama said. Another chance to set the record straight. Another way we keep perfecting our Union, and it starts today.
Obama also honored the persistence of veterans who built careers for themselves after their military service. According to the president, this demonstrates an outstanding sense of loyalty to our country.
Even though some Americans turned their backs on you, you never turned your back on them, Obama said. Those who took off their uniforms never stopped serving. [These are] the police officers and nurses, folks we count on every day ... You reminded us what it was like to serve, what it meant to serve.
The effect of the Vietnam veterans' efforts are long-lasting, the president said, and they play a central role in the treatment of our military now: Today's troops get the respect and support that all too often you did not receive. Because of you, because our Vietnam veterans led the charge, the 9/11 bill lets veterans go to college and pursue their dreams. Because of you, across America communities welcomed home our forces from Iraq. The 9/11 generation got the welcome home that they deserved.
According to Obama: This is what the 50th anniversary is all about: You did your job, you served with honor, you made us proud. You came home, and you helped build the America that we love, that we cherish.
The president concluded his speech with an anecdote he indicated reflects the spirit that America should embrace. He described a gift once left at the memorial by a high-school student. The gift included a football helmet, a wristband, and a note handwritten by the student, who was born decades after the Vietnam War had taken place.
[With] these two pieces of equipment, I was allowed to make mistakes, correct them, and grow as a person, Obama said the student's note read. However, that was on my battlefield. You didn't get the chance to do that on your battlefield. Some of you were forced to grow up too fast -- and all of you died too soon.