WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Saturday that the United States has a "sacred obligation" to take care of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families "for however long is necessary.
"It is part of the compact that we make with those who step forward to safeguard our freedom," Hagel said at a ceremony to begin the reading of the names of all those who have been killed in the recent conflicts. "Caring for these returning veterans — those who bear the visible and the invisible scars and wounds of war — is a solemn responsibility for America."
Hagel said the Vietnam veterans he works with every day "consider themselves ordinary people. They view themselves that way because they are humble, they are patriotic, and they are selfless. But those who marched off to serve their country are far from ordinary. They never asked for nor expected anything in return for their service other than respect and dignity.
"Unlike many in my generation, today's veterans return to a country that truly, truly appreciates their service and recognizes the sacrifices they've made for all of us. They are treated with dignity, respect and appreciation that they have earned and they deserve. As the United States winds down the longest period of sustained combat in our nation's history, America's obligations to those who answered the call to serve — more than two million Americans — are only just beginning."
The reading of names by about 450 people a few feet from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was to take about nine hours. Hagel and other speakers said the location of the event was fitting.
"This wall records the names of a previous generation that fought and died on a distant battlefield," Hagel said. "Whether they patrolled the jungles of Vietnam, the streets of Fallujah or the mountain paths of the Korengal Valley, they are the quiet heroes who served and died in the service of something greater than themselves — the service of their country."
One speaker who knows more than most people about sacrifice is Ruth Stonesifer, a Gold Star mother whose son, Pfc. Kristofor T. Stonesifer, became one of the first casualties of the Afghanistan war when he was killed in a helicopter crash on October 19, 2001. Ruth Stonesifer recalled that after the 9/11 attacks, her son predicted that "a lot of good men are going to die. He knew instinctively what was going to happen in the struggle against terrorism."
Soon after the war began, Stonesifer was watching the news on TV, and "at the bottom of the screen, it said two Rangers had been killed in a helicopter accident in support of the mission. My thoughts went out to those two poor families of the first to be killed in action. The next morning, when the man in the green uniform came to our door, I knew Chris had been right in his prediction."
Heather Penney was an Air Force F-16 pilot on September 11, 2001. She took to the air when reports came in that Flight 93 might be headed for Washington. The daughter of a Vietnam veteran, she spoke about what makes American servicemembers special.
"Courage, service, dedication, sacrifice ... it's in our DNA as Americans. This is who we are. This is our heritage. I know this, because I know the veterans who served before me. And I know the young servicemen and women who have joined our military service since. I am but one of hundreds of thousands who have pledged my life to defend our country, our constitution and our way of life. I'm not the first, and I am not the last.
"We are here today to honor those who have given the most, in courage, service, dedication and sacrifice. Not to mourn, but to remember and commemorate. Let their stories inspire us. For what they did was great. And let us in the course of the ceremony and the speaking of their names remind ourselves that the greatness that lived in them resides in all of us."