WASHINGTON (May 28, 2012) -- The Defense Department's most senior leaders today honored Vietnam War veterans, including their own friends and mentors, in a commemoration at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall here they said was long overdue.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and actor Tom Selleck all mentioned friends and mentors whose names are among the 58,282 etched into the black granite panels. They joined President Barack Obama in a ceremony marking the beginning of the 50th anniversary of the war.
The Vietnam War ended in April 1975 when North Vietnamese troops took the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon. While the end date is a certainty, it is a mirror of the war and the divisions it caused that Americans still disagree on when U.S. involvement in the country began.
American advisors were dying with their South Vietnamese soldiers in the mid-1950s. But historians -- and the Defense Department -- are commemorating the 50th anniversary of U.S. involvement in Vietnam now.
"At this hour, and at this hallowed memorial, we mark the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War -- a war that occupies a central place in the American story," Panetta said. "Millions of Americans were sent across the Pacific to a little known place to fight in the service of the country they loved."
Participating in the service was especially moving to Panetta, he said, because he went through ROTC and served in the Army with some of those killed in Vietnam.
"No memorial better reflects the pain of the sacrifices that were made (than this one)," he said.
Millions of American served in Vietnam and, at one point, well over 500,000 U.S. service members were deployed there. They returned, Panetta said, to a country that "failed to fully acknowledge their service, their sacrifice and failed to give them the honor they so justly deserved."
The Vietnam generation "is graying now," Panetta said. But it is not too late for the commemoration of Vietnam to right the wrongs of the past, he said.
The secretary spoke of his recent participation in a ceremony presenting the Medal of Honor to the widow of Army Spec. 4 Les Sabo. Sabo, a member of the famed 101st Airborne Division, died saving his platoon in 1970. The award recommendation was lost for years before another Screaming Eagle found it and revived the process.
"The story of Les, in many ways, is the story of the Vietnam War: We forgot and now we finally remember," Panetta said.
Dempsey noted that some people called the war -- and the wall -- a scar.
"But history's temperance allows us to see success where some only saw failure, to see hope where some only saw loss, and to see valor where some simply refused to look," he said.
The war's 50th anniversary gives Americans the opportunity to look, the chairman said.
Dempsey recalled being a 16-year-old in upstate New York and watching Capt. John Graham come back from the war, motivating him to want to be a Soldier himself.
"I remember the day in 1971 when Captain John Graham was buried at West Point," Dempsey said. "He died during his second tour advising the South Vietnamese Army. His son is now on West Point's faculty."
The chairman also spoke of Army Warrant Officer Roy Thomas, a gunship pilot with the 25th Infantry Division.
"He died in battle when his son was four months old," the chairman said. "His son is an Air Force officer on my staff."
Those men are just two examples that echo thousands more who share a martial bond with their forbearers, Dempsey said.
"Whether they served in Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan, whether they returned home or we still await their homecoming, there is no difference in their courage and sense of duty," he said. "There is no difference when it comes to fear and suffering, on the front line and on the home front. There is no difference in the love and longing of their families.
"And, there is no difference in the wounds that remain both seen and unseen."
Their example calls for Americans to resolve to "never again allow our veterans and their families to be left alone, left to feel outside, left to fend for themselves," Dempsey said. "And let us resolve today to not just say 'welcome home,' but to truly welcome our troops home with the respect and care that they and their families have earned."