May 26, 2008 - Memorial Day Speech at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
June 3, 2008
General George W. Casey, Jr.
Chief of Staff of the Army
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
General Casey: Thank you very much. And thank all my colleagues on the dais here for warming you up for me.
I can tell you today that this will be at least the second-best series of remarks by a uniformed officer. [Laughter]. I'm honored to be sharing this stage. Thank you.
It's an honor for me to be here on Memorial Day as we remember the men and women of our armed forces who throughout our history have sacrificed their lives so that we might live in freedom. And I will tell you, this is both a personal and a public journey for me.
These men and women ask for little, yet they inspire so much. They ask for only the gratitude of a grateful nation, and yet they inspire the commitment of the values and ideals on which this country was founded.
I live at Fort Myer now, right next to Arlington National Cemetery. Every day when I go back and forth to work I see rows upon rows of white headstones of the men and women who served this great country of ours.
Last week as I walked out I saw the soldiers of the Old Guard beginning to place American flags on the graves, on each grave, in honor of today's remembrances. I watched them. They walk in pairs. They approach the grave solemnly. They place the flag, they step back, they pause, they salute smartly, then they move silently to the next grave. It's quite a sight. It's quite a sight to at this memorial and the remembrances left on it are quite a sight. I will tell you, whether it's a flag or a note, these are but small symbols of our country's commitment to never forget the sacrifices of our fallen heroes or their families.
There are over 300,000 men and women buried at Arlington. There are over 58,000 name engraved on this Wall. And since our nation was founded, over one million men and women have given their lives. Across the country people are pausing today to remember them, and we can never forget them.
I was in Chicago Saturday for their memorial parade. When I spoke I talked about Corporal Jerry Wayne Wickam, a soldier from the Chicago suburbs of Rockford. Jerry Wayne Wickam is buried at Arlington and his name is on this Wall. Panel 33 East, Line 62.
In January 1968 near Saigon Corporal Wickam's reconnaissance patrol was attacked by a heavy barrage of rocket, automatic weapons and small arms fire from a well concealed bunker complex. Corporal Wickam immediately assaulted one of the bunkers and threw a grenade inside, killing two enemy soldiers. He began clearing the bunker when he heard a grenade being primed. He pushed one of his buddies away, saving his life. Running through a hail of fire he moved to the second bunker, killing an enemy soldier and capturing another. His patrol withdrew temporarily so they could call in an airstrike. When they returned, they were immediately attacked again. Without hesitating, Corporal Wickam charged a third bunker, allowing his men to seek cover as he destroyed it. He was mortally wounded by enemy fire shortly thereafter. For his conspicuous gallantry in action Corporal Wickam was awarded the Medal of Honor -- one of 247 Medals of Honor awarded during the Vietnam War.
Today our nation is at war again with men like Corporal Wickam fighting heroically for this country. Next week Specialist Ross McGinnis from York, Pennsylvania will be awarded the Medal of Honor. The fifth Medical of Honor awarded since our country was attacked on September 11, 2001.
On December 4, 2006 Specialist McGinnis in North Baghdad threw himself on a grenade, covering the blast with his body saving the lives of fellow soldiers.
Jerry Wickam and Ross McGinnis are American heroes. America needs real heroes today just as we needed them throughout history. They remind us of why we fight and they inspire us to protect the values, the ideals, and the freedoms that they died for. Over 145 years ago President Abraham Lincoln reminded the American people of this same thought. His words remain true today. "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."
Today is about the more than one million Americans who died serving this nation. They are American heroes, and it is for us to ensure that their sacrifices are not forgotten and that they did not die in vain.
At the Memorial Concert last night at the Capital Gary Sinise, one of the MCs, said that "A man doesn't die until he's forgotten." I think that's true. I do think he meant it to apply to women as well. But it's monuments like these that keep their memories alive.
I can tell you the first time that I saw this Wall, I got out of the car over here on Constitution Avenue. I started walking in this direction. I remembered thinking to myself, where is it' I ought to be able to see it by now. And then I came around that corner and I gasped. It took my breath away. I think it was a combination of the quiet respect and the scope of the loss that it represented that hit me so hard.
My eyes filled up with tears as I walked down to find my dad's name. Sheila, my wife, was with me. She kept asking me, what do you think' What do you feel' I was speechless. I couldn't say anything until we got back to the car. When we got in the car I think I said something like, "Wow, that is the most moving thing that I've ever seen in my life." Now I recognize that that wasn't very profound, but Sheila says I have trouble expressing my feelings. [Laughter].
I believe this monument not only captured the memories and the sacrifices of this war's fallen, but I believe that it's changed the way that people think about the Vietnam War and that change has benefited our soldiers today.
I think that by now most Americans recognize that we got it wrong in not acknowledging the courage, the valor, and the commitment of the men and women of our armed forces who fought an unpopular war. I also think they are now resolved never to let that happen again.
That's important. Because as hard and as all-consuming as war is, we cannot forget its aftermath. The broken bodies, the broken minds, and the broken families that require the continued attention of a grateful nation.
As a country we must remain committed to work diligently to provide our wounded warriors and the families of our fallen and our missing from all wars with our full support.
Let me close with a memory from another war monument. This one is a British memorial in Burma, from World War II. It says so eloquently what I think we should all feel today. It says, "When you go home, tell them of us and say for your tomorrow we gave our today."
So today as each of you go home, tell them of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who are giving their today around the world for a better future for all Americans. And for a moment pause and remember those who had made possible your tomorrows. And from the memory of these honored dead, let us recommit ourselves to never forget the sacrifices of these fallen and of their families, and let us commit ourselves to renew our commitment to the values and ideals that have made this nation what it is today, the greatest nation in the world.
Thank you, and God bless you.