WASHINGTON — Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel returned to the Pentagon Tuesday to pay tribute to his fellow Vietnam veterans who he said fought in an unpopular war they didn't understand and returned to an ungrateful nation.
The two-time Purple Heart recipient formally opened the Defense Departments Vietnam war exhibit, which stretches along a segment of the third-floor corridor and marks the 50th anniversary of the conflict.
Speaking to a small crowd gathered in the corridor, Hagel said it was "a difficult time to serve this country."
"Unfortunately, our Vietnam veterans came back to a country that was not only ungrateful, but their service was vilified," said Hagel, who served as Pentagon chief from 2013-2015. "These men and women didn't have anything to do with the policy that put us in Vietnam, but they served this country and they served it as honorably as any generation in the history of this country has served."
Hagel and his brother Tom served in Vietnam in 1968 — a year, he said, that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, as well as riots in the streets and "tremendous social unrest."
Now, in recognizing the 50th anniversary, the country has finally corrected the wrongs done to veterans returning from the war, Hagel said. The exhibit, he said, provides accurate, historical reflection on the war and the times.
Spread around part of the Pentagon's A Ring, which faces the inner courtyard, the exhibit includes portions of two Huey helicopters as well as other historical combat equipment and materials. It documents the history of the war and has interactive displays that focus on the war from the veterans' perspective.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter formally opened the exhibit, along with Hagel.
About nine million U.S. troops served during the Vietnam war era, and about seven million are still living today. More than 58,000 Americans were killed during the conflict.
The official 50th anniversary commemoration recognizes the 20-year span from November 1, 1955 to May 15, 1975, to acknowledge the service of all those who were on active duty during that time.
November 1, 1955, was chosen to coincide with the official designation of Military Assistance Advisory Group-Vietnam (MAAG-V), and May 15, 1975, marks the end of the battle precipitated by the seizure of the merchant ship SS Mayaguez, which was the last official battle of the war.