WASHINGTON — Thousands of people gathered Saturday in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to pay tribute to the 3 million Americans who served in that war.
Standing before the iconic black granite wall etched with names of the fallen, keynote speaker Chuck Hagel recalled the memorial’s dedication 35 years before.
“It was built to honor, remember and recognize the sacrifices of over 58,000 Americans and all the men and women who served in a confusing and unpopular war in a very distant land,” Hagel said. “This memorial was built for future generations, so they would learn from this war and would always remember that wars have serious and lasting consequences.”
Other speakers included Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Maya Lin, the architect who designed the memorial.
Hagel was seriously wounded while serving as an enlisted soldier in Vietnam alongside his brother Tom, who attended Saturday’s event.
After representing Nebraska for two terms in the Senate, Hagel went on to serve as secretary of defense under President Barack Obama — the only Vietnam veteran to hold the position.
During Saturday’s ceremony, he joined Zinke and others in presenting wreaths at the center of the memorial, while a bagpiper played “Amazing Grace” on the knoll above.
Hagel has spoken at ceremonies at the memorial numerous times over the years. Asked in an interview what has changed, he said the crowds have grown and include more and more young people.
That, he said, goes to the heart of the purpose of these memorials: to remind the next generation of the past.
“It’s a time when America is reflecting more and more on a lot of things,” Hagel said.
In his speech, Hagel spoke of the courage and compassion shown by those who served in Vietnam and the unkind reception that greeted many when they returned home.
“They rebuilt their lives understanding better than most that the price they paid included a large measure of injustice,” Hagel said. “Not all succeeded. Many struggled and still struggle from that experience in that faraway land.”
He said many veterans ultimately were inspired by their experiences to work on improving the world.
“Their recognition came far too late, but look around you now,” he said. “It is here today.”
He told the Vietnam veterans present at the ceremony to celebrate their day of recognition, because they earned it.
“For you are the quiet heroes of your generation,” Hagel said.