Vietnam Veterans Memorial Dedication
Thank you very much for allowing me to be here today. The events of this day are longer overdue.
Each of us here today has a unique perspective on the Vietnam War.
For those born after 1970, the war is remembered largely through books, movies and television: “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Platoon,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Full Metal Jacket” … The Rolling Stones’ song “Gimme Shelter”, John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance”, and The Doors’ “Unknown Soldier”.
Those of us who came of age during the 1960’s and ‘70’s saw the war being played out in our living rooms as television news for the first time documented the horrors of war. For us, the Vietnam War impacted what we believed and how we viewed the world.
But for the more than 2 million men and women who answered the call to service, their families and the families of the 58,261 Americans who lost their lives, Vietnam – the most controversial war in American history – defines who they are: Patriots, Soldiers, Heroes.
Vietnam was a conflict that took place not just in North and South Vietnam, but also in neighboring Laos and Cambodia. The “official” war lasted 16 long years, from 1959 until 1975.
But America’s presence there began much earlier. In an effort to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam as part of a wider strategy of containing post- World War II communism, U.S. military advisors began arriving in 1950. America’s involvement escalated in the early 1960’s, with troop levels tripling in 1961 and tripling again the following year. In 1965, the first combat units were deployed. Vietnam was an unpopular war. It divided our country. During the course of those 16 years, there were marches, demonstrations, even riots. A mandatory draft was implemented. Conscientious objectors fled the country to avoid going to war. The bitter opposition to our presence in Southeast Asia dominated the headlines and permeated our lives.
What was often lost in those headlines, those conversations, those marches and demonstrations, was the soldiers who served. Whatever their personal beliefs, they did their jobs. Every minute of every hour of every day, they put their lives on the line for our freedom, our liberty, our way of life.
Thousands didn’t come home alive. Many of those who did were greeted with unbelievable disrespect and an unprecedented lack of appreciation for our military men and women. They were yelled at, insulted, spit on. Their superior officers instructed them, for their own safety, not to wear their uniforms when they traveled. They had to endure all of this not because they deserved to be treated this way – quite the contrary. They had to endure it because they did their jobs. They honored their commitments. They shouldered the responsibility that was given them. They did it quietly and without complaint.
The men and women who served in Vietnam inspire us to protect the freedoms, ideals and values on which this great country was founded.
President Abraham Lincoln reminded Americans of this in 1863, during the War Between the States, when he delivered the Gettysburg Address:
“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. 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.”
Lincoln’s words ring true today. Regardless of our politics, perspective or personal histories as they relate to Vietnam, we have this in common: As Americans we hold dear the values of freedom, democracy and liberty and our commitment to protecting them for ourselves and future generations.
Vietnam Veterans have played a part in all our lives. Maybe they’re our parents or grandparents. Perhaps they are our bosses or colleagues. They may be our friends or acquaintances. Whatever part they may play in our lives – and whether or not we know of their service – they have an influence.
Even those we’ve never known – some of whom died as a result of the war – have had an impact.
It is the military, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press. It is the military, not the poet, who has given us the freedom of speech. It is the military, not the politicians, that ensures our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
It is the military who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin in draped by the flag.
Today, we gather to honor all New Mexicans who served in America’s military during the Vietnam War.
Thirty-five years have passed since U.S. forces withdrew from Vietnam, and time has healed many of the wounds. Today, we take that healing one step further, as we come together as a community, representing multiple generations, to honor the Vietnam Era heroes to whom we owe an enormous debt of gratitude.
As we reflect on the meaning of this memorial, let us remember that the men and women who served during the Vietnam War chose to answer the call of duty, honor and country. Let us acknowledge with gratitude their courage, their valor, and their commitment.
On Veterans Day 1988, President Ronald Reagan spoke of the lesson in love imparted by those he called “our gentle heroes of Vietnam.” I want to share with you some of what he said:
“We remember today that all our gentle heroes of Vietnam have given us a lesson in something more: a lesson in living love. Yes, for all of them, those who came back and those who did not, their love for their families lives. Their love for their buddies on the battlefields and friends back home lives. Their love of their country lives…
“Our nation itself is testimony to the love our veterans have had for it and for us. Our liberties, our values, all for which America stands, is safe today because brave men and women have been ready to face the fire at freedom’s front. And we thank God for them …
“From all our divisions, we have always eventually emerged strengthened. Perhaps we are finding that new strength today, and if so, much of it comes from the forgiveness and healing love that our Vietnam veterans have shown.”
To this day, frequent greeting and catchphrase among American Vietnam veterans is “Welcome home.” To all of them, I hope you will join me today in saying, with gratitude and love, “Welcome home.”
In closing, I want to share with you a poem called “The Final Inspection” (author unknown):
THE FINAL INSPECTION
The soldier stood and faced God,
Which must always come to pass.
He hoped his shoes were shining,
Just as brightly as his brass.
“Step forward now, you soldier,
How shall I deal with you?
Have you always turned the other cheek?
To My Church have you been true?”
The soldier squared his shoulders and said,
“No, Lord, I guess I ain’t.
Because those of us who carry guns,
Can’t always be a saint.
I’ve had to work most Sundays,
And at times my talk was tough.
And sometimes I’ve been violent,
Because the world is awfully rough.
But, I never took a penny,
That wasn’t mine to keep…
Though I worked a lot of overtime,
When the bills got just too steep.
And I never passed a cry for help,
Though at times I shook with fear.
And sometimes, God, forgive me,
I’ve wept unmanly tears.
I know I don’t deserve a place,
Among the people here.
They never wanted me around,
Except to calm their fears.
If you’ve a place for me here, Lord,
It needn’t be so grand.
I never expected or had too much,
But if you don’t, I’ll understand.”
There was a silence all around the throne,
Where the saints had often trod.
As the soldier waited quietly,
For the judgment of his God.
“Step forward now, you soldier,
You’ve borne your burdens well.
Walk peacefully on Heaven’s streets,
You’ve done your time in Hell.”
God bless America and the veterans we honor today.