WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Ash Carter and congressional leaders thanked Vietnam War veterans for their service and presented pins to dozens of veterans at a Capitol ceremony Wednesday that marked 50 years since U.S. ground troops arrived in Vietnam.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other legislative leaders attended the ceremony. A day earlier, President Barack Obama held an unprecedented meeting with the head of Vietnam's Communist Party as the U.S. pressed to conclude talks on a groundbreaking Asia-Pacific economic pact.
The Vietnam War taught Americans many lessons, "many hard-won, some difficult to swallow," Carter said. "But all of them have made us a better country and a better military."
Two lessons in particular are important to remember, Carter said. "First, we leave no one behind," he said. While the U.S. is not the only military with that ethos, "there are few that have such a steadfast and sustained commitment, which is about more than raising the iconic POW-MIA symbol up on the flagpoles around the nations. It's about the promise we make and we work hard to keep."
The Defense Department has more than 650 employees devoted to accounting for the missing from U.S. wars, including the 1,627 service members still missing from Vietnam, Carter said.
The second lesson is that Americans "must support our warriors, regardless of our feelings about the war," Carter said, calling that a lesson "some learned the hard way in the Vietnam era."
Carter and other speakers said they were gratified that "our troops today are welcomed home" and that veterans, including those from Vietnam, are often thanked for their service and appreciated by those back home.
"I want to take this opportunity to thank you, our Vietnam-era veterans, for that lesson, and to again welcome all of you home," Carter said.
Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, himself a Vietnam veteran, told the crowd of several hundred that he and other veterans feel a special bond. He said that he, too, is grateful that the nation's attitude toward veterans has greatly improved since he returned from Vietnam.
Those who have experienced war know the truth, Hagel said: "There is no glory in war, only suffering."