WASHINGTON, Nov. 11, 2010 — President Barack Obama marked Veterans Day in the Republic of Korea where he told U.S. troops they have his unending support.
Speaking at U.S. Army Yongsan Garrison on the 92nd anniversary of Veterans Day, the president addressed an audience of about 1,400 base personnel and families, as well as several hundred Korean War veterans, both American and Korean.
“It is an enormous honor to be here at Yongsan Garrison,” Obama said. “As president of the United States, I have no greater privilege than serving as commander-in-chief of the finest military that the world has ever known. And on this Veterans Day, there’s no place I’d rather be than right here with U.S. Forces Korea.”
The crowd comprised soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, and Defense Department civilians. Obama also noted the presence of U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens, Army Gen. Walter L. “Skip” Sharp,commander of U.S. Force Korea, and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Hector Cafferata, Jr., among others.
Obama said it was good to see military family members in the audience. “You bear the burden of your loved one’s service in ways that are often immeasurable — an empty chair at the dinner table, or another holiday where Mom and Dad are someplace far away,” he told the families at Yongsan. “So I want you to know that this nation recognizes the sacrifices of families, as well. And we are grateful for your service.
“Now, on this day we honor every man and woman who has ever worn the uniform of the United States of America. We salute fallen heroes, and keep in our prayers those who are still in harm’s way -– like the men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said to a round of applause.
But veterans should not be recognized just one day a year, Obama said. “We recall acts of uncommon bravery and selflessness. But we also remember that honoring those who’ve served is about more than the words we say on Veterans Day or Memorial Day,” he said. “It’s about how we treat our veterans every single day of the year. It’s about making sure they have the care they need and the benefits that they’ve earned when they come home. It’s about serving all of you as well as you’ve served the United States of America.”
Obama called the well-being of veterans one of his highest priorities. “[That is] why I asked for one of the largest increases in the [Veterans Affairs] budget in the past 30 years,” he said. “It’s why we’ve dramatically increased funding for veterans’ health care. It’s why we’re improving care for wounded warriors, especially those with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. It’s why we’re working to eliminate the backlog at the VA and reforming the entire process with electronic claims and medical records. It’s why there are fewer homeless veterans on the streets than there were two years ago.”
And with nearly 400,000 veterans and their families who are going to college because of the Post‑9/11 G.I. Bill, Obama said, he wants servicemembers to know when they come home, their country is going to be there for them.
His commitment as command-in-chief, he said, is “a trust that’s been forged in places far from our shores: from the beaches of Europe to the jungles of Vietnam, from the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, to the peninsula where we stand today, ” he said.
“Sixty years have come and gone since the communist armies first crossed the 38th Parallel,” Obama said of the Korean War. “Within three days, they’d captured Seoul. By the end of the next month, they had driven the Korean army all the way south, to Pusan. And from where things stood in the summer of 1950, it didn’t appear that the Republic of Korea would survive much longer.
“At the time, many Americans had probably never heard of Korea. It had only been five years since we had finished fighting the last war,” he said of World War II. “But we knew that if we allowed the unprovoked invasion of a free nation, then all free nations would be threatened. And so, for the first time since its creation, the United Nations voted to use armed forces to repel the attack from North Korea.”
On Sept. 15, 1950, American forces landed at Inchon in some of the worst conditions U.S. troops had experienced, Obama said. Temperatures in Korea fell below 30 degrees Fahrenheit in winter, and over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in summer. In many places, Americans and their Korean allies were outgunned and outmanned, sometimes by as much as 20 to 1. At one point, they were hit with 24,000 artillery shells a day. By the end, the fighting had sometimes devolved into trench warfare, he said, waged on hands and knees in the middle of the night. “And yet, our soldiers fought on,” Obama said. Nearly 37,000 Americans were killed in Korea. But after three years of fighting, U.S. forces finally succeeded in driving the invading armies back over the 38th Parallel.
Many of those military men were only teenagers, Obama told the audience. And many others had just returned home from fighting in World War II.
“Gentlemen, we are honored by your presence,” he said. “We are grateful for your service. The world is better off because of what you did here. And for those who can, I would ask that, again, you receive the thanks of a grateful nation,” he said, also thanking the Korean soldiers “who battled side by side with our own.
“The veterans who have traveled here today saw battle at the Inchon landing and the Pusan Perimeter,” he said. “They survived the bloodshed at Heartbreak Ridge and the ambush at Chosin Reservoir.”
At one point in that battle, Obama said, the enemy tossed a grenade into a trench where multiple Marines lay wounded. And that is where Pvt. Hector Cafferata ran into the trench, picked up that grenade and threw it back. It detonated in his hand and severely injured his arm. “Because of what he did,” the president said, “Private Cafferata saved the lives of his fellow Marines. He received the Medal of Honor for his heroism. He is here today.”
“Each of these men served their nation with incredible courage and commitment,” Obama said. “They left their homes and their families and risked their lives in what’s often been called The Forgotten War.
“So today, we all want you to know this: We remember. We remember your courage. We remember your sacrifice. And the legacy of your service lives on in a free and prosperous Republic of Korea.”
Whether a veteran who landed in Korea in 1950 or serving the armed forces today, Obama told them, “the security you’ve provided has made possible one of the great success stories of our time. ”
He praised the people of the Republic of Korea for being one of the most prosperous, fastest-growing democracies in the world just two generations later, progress that transformed the lives of millions of people.
“Because the Korean War ended where it began geographically, some ended up using the phrase ‘Die for a Tie’ to describe the sacrifices of those who fought here,” Obama said. “But as we look around in this thriving democracy and its grateful, hopeful citizens, one thing is clear: This was no tie. This was victory.”
That victory remains alive today, he said.
“And 60 years later, a friendship that was forged in a war has become an alliance that has led to greater security and untold progress — not only in the Republic of Korea, but throughout Asia. That is something that everyone here can be extraordinarily proud of,” he said.
“The alliance between our two nations has never been stronger, and along with the rest of the world, we’ve made it clear that North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons will only lead to more isolation and less security for them.”
Addressing North Korea, Obama said that country has another path available: “If they choose to fulfill their international obligations and commitments to the international community, they will have the chance to offer their people lives of growing opportunity instead of crushing poverty — a future of greater security and greater respect; a future that includes the prosperity and opportunity available to citizens on this end of the Korean Peninsula. ”
But until that day comes, he said, “The world can take comfort in knowing that the men and women of the United States armed forces are standing watch on freedom’s frontier. In doing so, you carry on the legacy of service and sacrifice that we saw from those who landed here all those years ago. It’s a legacy we honor and cherish on this Veterans Day.”
In closing, the president addressed the poignancy of the plaque inscription on the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C. It reads, “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.”
The inscription captures perfectly “the selflessness and generosity of every man or woman who has ever worn the uniform of the United States of America,” he said. “At a time when it has never been more tempting or accepted to pursue narrow self-interest and personal ambition, all of you here remind us that there are few things that are more fundamentally American than doing what we can to make a difference in the lives of others.
“And that’s why you’ll always be the best that America has to offer the world,” he added. “And that is why people who never met you, who never knew you, will always be grateful to the friend and ally they found in the United States of America.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)