President Barack Obama addressed a Memorial Day crowd at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that included Medal of Honor recipient Brian Thacker and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
The May 28 ceremony, emceed by actor and National Guard veteran Tom Selleck, marked nearly 30 years since "The Wall" was dedicated Nov. 13, 1982. About three months earlier, The American Legion had donated $1 million to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, making it the largest single contributor to the memorial.
In his remarks, Obama said the Vietnam War era has been called "a scar on our country" by some. "But here’s what I say. As any wound heals, the tissue around it becomes tougher, becomes stronger than before. And in this sense, finally, we might begin to see the true legacy of Vietnam.
"Because of Vietnam and our veterans, we now use American power smarter, we honor our military more, we take care of our veterans better. Because of the hard lessons of Vietnam, because of you, America is even stronger than before."
At the original 1982 dedication ceremony, American Legion National Commander Al Keller Jr. was the keynote speaker. He talked about the "lonely battle" fought by Vietnam veterans in the midst of domestic political strife and strong anti-war sentiments. "There is no shame in serving with honor and courage in difficult times," Keller said. "And there is no shame in enshrining the names of fallen comrades in immutable stone for generations to recall."
Thirty years later, the names of 10 more fallen warriors have been added to The Wall, bringing the total to 58,282.
Milt Heifner, national vice commander of The American Legion, and Peter Gaytan, the Legion’s executive director in Washington, represented the Legion family at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial ceremony where they too presented a wreath.
Heifner said it was important for Americans to honor those who have fought and died in uniform because "everything that we have in America is a result of the sacrifices by our troops, by our veterans. And what they’ve given us is through what they fought for and the sacrifices that they’ve made."
As an Air Force veteran, Heifner served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970, flying C-130 Hercules transport planes. "I flew in-country shuttles for six months, and then I flew special operations for another two years," Heifner said.
Memorial Day is the day when Heifner especially remembers the man who taught him to fly at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Okla. "He was shot down in an F-4 (Phantom jet fighter) over Hanoi. I think of him because he was my very first instructor. We flew together for six months."
Meanwhile, Brian Thacker received the Medal of Honor for his actions on March 31, 1971, while serving as a first lieutenant with an Army field artillery regiment at a base in Kontum Province, South Vietnam. On that day, the base was attacked by North Vietnamese Army forces and, when the American troops were forced to evacuate, Thacker stayed behind to cover the retreat. He ended up being trapped behind enemy lines and evaded capture for eight days until he was rescued.
The citation for Thacker’s Medal of Honor notes that the lieutenant "remained inside the perimeter alone to provide covering fire with his M-16 rifle until all other friendly forces had escaped from the besieged fire base. Then, in an act of supreme courage, he called for friendly artillery fire on his own position to allow his comrades more time to withdraw safely from the area and, at the same time, inflict even greater casualties on the enemy forces."
In 1962, the Military Assistance Command was created and headquartered in Saigon to manage the U.S. troop buildup. U.S. Marine Corps helicopter squadrons were stationed in Soc Trang to provide air support for South Vietnamese troops fighting the Viet Cong. By year’s end, 11,300 American troops were deployed to Vietnam.
Other speakers at the ceremony included Jan Scruggs, founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund; Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar; Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Chuck Hagel, Vietnam War veteran and former U.S. senator from Nebraska.