WASHINGTON -- Individuals with disabilities are unemployed at twice the rate of the national average even though many of them have the training, skills and experience the U.S. needs, particularly in the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines, said the defense secretary.

Mark T. Esper spoke at the 39th Annual Secretary of Defense Disability Awards Ceremony in the Pentagon Thursday.

In the ceremony, Esper recognized the Army as the best military department in advancing employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

"We must do our part across the [DOD] to harness those talents and help bridge the employment gap," he said. "That means eliminating barriers to recruitment across the force. We must give everyone the opportunity to succeed and support them as they advance their careers."

Esper also honored Sgt. 1st Class John Hoxie, senior geospatial intelligence imagery analyst for Army South Command's G-2 intel operations, during the ceremony. Veronika Benavidez, a human resources specialist for the Army's Civilian Human Resource Agency, was recognized, too.

The DOD must continue to recognize each worker's unique contributions and their leadership, Esper said, so that the armed forces can retain the technological edge and military superiority.

It's fitting that this year's theme for National Disability Employment Awareness Month is "The Right Talent, Right Now," he said.

That's because military personnel, including those who are disabled, all bring to the job skills that are critical to accomplishing the mission, exactly when they're needed, which is right now.

"People are our most important resource," Esper said. "That remains as true as ever. The diversity and talents across the department is what drives ingenuity."

This year marks the 29th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which became a global standard for non-discrimination and equal opportunity, he noted.

"Today, let's recommit to upholding that legacy. Let's shape our force to one that's united by something much stronger than our differences; that is, our dedication and passion for the mission, regardless of background or disability," he said.

Esper mentioned the 23 military personnel being honored for their achievements. He said they all embody the spirit of service that defines the workforce. "The honorees are inspiring models of selfless service for all of us."

The Defense Department's Awards for Outstanding Civilian Employees and Military Service Members program derives from Presidential Executive Order 13548, to increase the participation rates of persons with disabilities in the federal service. The award also recognizes achievements, excellence and contributions of civilian employees and service members with disabilities.

The award ceremony is conducted each October, during National Disability Employment Awareness Month.