WASHINGTON -- As America remembers those who have served on Veterans Day, the Defense Department reaffirms its dedication to today's force and recommits itself to building the Force of the Future, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said.

The secretary was keynote speaker at a Veterans Day ceremony at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery Friday.

"Today, we honor every American who has stepped forward to serve," he said of the more than 20 million living veterans and more than two million Americans still serving in uniform around the world.

FORCE OF THE FUTURE

"The men and women of the force of the future will inherit a remarkable legacy," Carter said in prepared remarks. "Since the nation's founding, each of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and veterans -- men and women -- active, Guard, and reserves -- has done one of the noblest things a person can do, which is to help defend our country and make a better world for our children."

And as the world and wars have changed, they've fought, adapted to fit the times, and prepared for the future, he said.

Those who today follow in the footsteps of America's veterans face five major and evolving challenges, Carter said, from Russian aggression and coercion, to the military rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, strengthening U.S. deterrent and defense forces as North Korea continues nuclear and missile provocations, Iranian aggression and malign influence in the Gulf, and the campaign to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

PREPARING FOR THE UNCERTAIN FUTURE

The secretary said today's force must also prepare to contend with an uncertain future so that the Department of Defense will remain ready for unanticipated challenges.

"I'm doing everything I can to support the strength and readiness of today's fighting force -- investing in the right training, the right force size, the right equipment and the right compensation and benefits that our troops, military families, and DOD civilians deserve," he said.

And while the DOD's force of today is outstanding and meets its many challenges, Carter said, thinking outside of the Pentagon's five-sided box will ensure the U.S. military remains the best.

As generations change, so too will technology and labor markets, requiring the DOD to stay competitive to attract and retain the most talented people, he said.

WOMEN IN COMBAT

One effort to keep the competitive edge was Carter's landmark decision last year to open up all combat positions to women without exception. The decision ensured that the military would benefit from the service of every American who can meet its high standards and contribute to the defense mission, he noted.

"[That] requires drawing strength from the broadest possible pool of talent, and that includes women, because they make up over 50 percent of the American population," the secretary said.

To succeed in the DOD mission, he added, the department must take full advantage of every individual who can meet its standards.

"Any woman who qualifies can now contribute to our mission in ways they could not before," the secretary said. "They can drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat. They can serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers, and everything else that previously was open only to men."

All women in uniform will be able to realize their full potential, Carter said, explaining that, "while [DOD] had previously benefitted from the skills and perspectives of women, … they had long been only allowed to serve in limited roles or had limitations put on their opportunities simply because of their gender. While that was bad talent management, it also wasn't right. That's why we ended it."

Carter continued, "I'm proud to say that everyone who's able and willing to serve their country, who can meet our high standards, has the full and equal opportunity to do so."

Whether military veterans served years ago or are part of DOD's Force of the Future, Carter said, he couldn't be prouder of them and for what they have done and what they continue to do for the country and the America people.

"Their excellence is unparalleled," he said. "Their service is invaluable. And their sacrifices will never be forgotten."