WASHINGTON (March 19, 2014) -- Secretary Hagel, Sir, thank you obviously for your gracious words and your presence here today, but as well for the tremendous leadership you've brought to these very challenging times.

Chief, Mrs. O, Sergeant Major, Distinguished Members of Congress, all of the Department of Defense Family -- particularly those from the United States Army, but especially, to the Families and the honorees who with us here today: Welcome. It's wonderful to see all of you again.

Since becoming the Secretary of the Army, I've had many occasions to attend some pretty historic events, and it should probably go without saying that today is certainly one of them. As President Obama noted yesterday, this induction serves as the largest single induction of Medal of Honor honorees since World War II: Twenty-four amazing Soldiers who will finally take their rightful place in our Hall of Heroes.

Their stories -- two dozen in total -- are as diverse as was their service. And their hometowns truly spread from sea to shining sea, twelve different states, as well as Puerto Rico and Mexico. They valiantly, they defiantly, in German forests, in Korean hilltops and in Vietnam countryside fought -- fighting always against the tremendous and fierce enemy and equally tremendous odds. Each of their stories when taken alone is truly breathtaking; but taken together, they really form an incredible volume of history -- one that details the service, the sacrifice and, most of all, the courage of the American soldier.

And we are all truly blessed that three of these Medal of Honor recipients are here in this hall this morning. I would like to take just a second, if I may, to introduce them to you: They are Sergeant Santiago Erevia, Sergeant First Class Melvin Morris, and Master Sergeant Jose Rodela. Gentlemen, please rise and be recognized for your incredible achievements.

To these true American heroes, I would simply say it is a deep honor to be in your company, and thank you for your service and your sacrifice. You have just heard [the applause], and I hope you've gotten a flavor for these past few days that you are an inspiration to us all. God Bless You. Please have a seat.

I would tell you, though, Gentlemen, beyond your personal courage, we also look at you at this moment as the embodiment of 21 other heroes, as the Secretary [of Defense] mentioned, we also honor this day, those whom we did not thank, we did not properly recognize either in our time, or more importantly, in theirs.

During a speech in the House of Commons, less than two months before the D-Day invasion, Winston Churchill remarked that while "a medal glitters…it also casts a shadow." The medal each of these heroes has earned, and now wears, symbolizes, obviously, tremendous personal courage and uncommon valor. But at the same time, [this Medal] does cloak the auditorium, cloak it in a shadow cast by the spirit and sacrifice of all those who were honored yesterday at the White House by President Obama. Their memories and their stories preserved and passed on by family members also who were there yesterday and are pleased -- so pleased, who are with us here today. And I would ask those family members representing this tremendous Medal of Honor class to stand for a moment, so that you, too, can be recognized for the sacrifice that your loved ones rendered to this Nation. Please --

My dad, who was wise in many ways, but perhaps genetics and science was not amongst them, he used to say on rare occasions [when he was] proud of my brother or me, "You know, you plant tomatoes, you get tomatoes." Your relatives planted some pretty great tomatoes. It's been wonderful -- wonderful -- getting to know you, and God Bless You for being here. Thank you.

As Secretary Hagel accurately spoke, as proud and as historic as this day may be, it is, frankly, not without some controversy and some lingering concern. This effort, indeed, began as the Secretary [of Defense] noted, because there was a belief -- we now know, justified -- that Jewish and Hispanic Service members who fought in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam may have been unjustly denied the Medal of Honor due to the racial or religious prejudice of those times. We've come far as a nation, we've come far as an Army; but we must never fail to recognize that bias and prejudice and hate have too often played a role in our Nation's history. President Kennedy once observed that "no one has been barred [from the battlefield] on account of his race from fighting or dying for America," there's no distinction between race or religion in "the foxholes or graveyards of battle."

As we continue to ask America's sons and daughters to join and to fight together, as one, to struggle for a better and more secure future, we should not only heed, but truly expand and build upon President Kennedy's wise perspective, never, never separating those who serve by any means -- not by skin color, not by race, not by belief -- and striving, at all times, to ensure tolerance and respect in all things, and especially, all people.

Thanks to the review that led to this day, we did, in fact, as we now all know, identify two dozen soldiers either here or represented, whose courage and valor were indeed worthy of our nation's highest military honor. What began as a review of potential prejudice yielded other awardees, also wholly deserving of the Medal of Honor. For reasons that really had nothing to do with our imperfect history, we can only assume they were overlooked and missed instead through the influence of a longstanding and ongoing evil -- that of the military bureaucracy. At this point in time, we hope, we believe we have at last righted all our wrongs, regardless of the cause or motivations. No matter how this journey began, I do personally take heart in the Army's ensuing effort and pride in those people who poured over the thousands of pages of decades-old records, who pieced together the narratives and stories that had been faded by time, who were able to identify and at last help us properly recognize the individuals we honor at this moment.

If I have one regret, it's that so few are here to receive this honor -- and our thanks -- in person. Many we lost to the passage of time, many, too, were lost on the battlefields of Europe, East and Southeast Asia, after giving their very lives in service to their country.

General Douglas MacArthur believed that "however horrible the incidents of war may be, the soldier who is called upon to offer and to give his life for his country is," what he described, "the noblest development of mankind." Each of these 24 Soldiers offered their very lives in service to our country and something larger than themselves. Their selfless sacrifice saved countless lives, the lives of other Soldiers, of comrades, of buddies in arms, and untold millions who today enjoy the fruits of a freedom they would have never otherwise known. Each has earned this Nation's highest military honor, claiming their rightful place in history for their personal acts of uncommon valor, always above and beyond the call of duty. Today, they are, what they have always been, the noblest development of mankind.

So let us go forth from this moment -- learning and advancing by the painful lessons of days gone by [and] celebrating the sacrifices of those who have gone before and expanding upon the bedrock of freedom that they forged by their valor, so that future generations might know and bask in what these heroes amazingly defended -- the hope and promise of a better tomorrow.

So God bless these 24 heroes, their Families, God bless all of you, the United States of America and this glorious Army that keeps us free. Thank you.