By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Nov. 11, 2022) -- In front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall today, during a Veterans Day commemoration, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III recalled the service of some of the veterans of that war and how their service both served the nation, and in one case, his own call to serve.
"For 40 years, this granite wall has never been just about history," Austin said. "This solemn place has beckoned visitors to feel the profound connection between the past and the present in the simplest of ways -- by reaching out a hand and touching a name. Standing at the wall, hand outstretched, we feel that the sacrifices of these 58,281 fallen Americans remain with us. They shape who we are today, and they urge us to live up to America's full promise."
Every veteran who has served or who still does, Austin said, has made the United States safer and stronger.
"That is the lasting legacy of your service," Austin said. "And it demands our lasting gratitude."
The secretary recalled Vietnam veteran and Medal of Honor recipient Alfred V. Rascon. Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, Rascon served in the war but didn't become a naturalized American citizen until after his initial service ended.
"In Vietnam in 1966, [Spc. Rascon] found his platoon under assault," Austin said. "Defying orders, he ran towards the firefight to help, and surrounded by teammates and severely injured himself, he threw his body in front of a comrade to shield him from enemy fire. Incredibly, Spc. Rascon repeated this act of bravery two more times, covering two other teammates with his own body to absorb the explosions."
After becoming a U.S. citizen, Rascon became an Army officer and returned to serve again in Vietnam. In 2000, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions as an enlisted service member during a ceremony at the White House, and in 2002, he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as the 10th director of the Selective Service System.
Austin also remembered Army officer, and nurse, Lola Olsmith, who he said joined the military after seeing a recruiting ad for Army nurses on television. Olsmith later found herself in a hospital in Vietnam, working 12-hours shifts, and treating both American and Vietnamese personnel.
"They would travel into villages and treat anyone who needed it," Austin said. "One night during the Tet Offensive, when an explosion tore through their building, the young nurse lifted up a pregnant Vietnamese woman by herself and sheltered her under a bed for protection. So Lola Olsmith had found her calling."
After her time in Vietnam, Austin said, Olsmith remained an Army nurse and treated patients around the country, eventually progressing in rank to colonel as a nurse recruiter.
"During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Col. Olsmith found herself treating the war wounded overseas once again, a quarter century after she went to Vietnam," Austin said. "And years later, reflecting on her military career, Col. Olsmith simply said, 'I'm just very proud to be a part of it.'"
Finally, Austin remembered one other Vietnam veteran -- his own uncle.
"I come from a family with a proud history of military service, and one of my uncles served in Vietnam as a communicator," Austin said. "He was the very first African-American Green Beret that I ever saw. He came home wearing ... his jump boots and that green beret ... those jump wings ... he was very impressive. My uncle was deeply and quietly proud of what he had contributed. And his pride helped to inspire me to serve as well. My uncle showed me how meaningful service could be. And he showed me the way that one act of service can lead to many, many more."
Austin himself went on to serve in the U.S. Army, graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1975. During his time in uniform, he served as both the vice chief of staff of the Army and as the commander of United States Central Command. After his military service, he was nominated to serve as the 28th Secretary of Defense, a position he still holds.
"Let us never underestimate what service can mean," Austin said. "Never forget the ripples set in motion by the Americans who fought in Vietnam, including veterans who may never have fully realized what a difference they made to those around them. Because service lifts up others, it enriches your own life, and it makes you part of a proud American story."
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall has stood in place for 40 years now, and in that time a new crop of veterans has both deployed to combat in a war overseas and returned home. Those veterans have also contributed to the story of the United States, Austin said -- and contributed to the freedom Americans today continue to enjoy.
The secretary also highlighted the service of U.S. military veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, tying their service to the heroism of those memorialized on the wall.
"In 2008, one of my fellow Iraq vets came to this sacred place and he left a pair of his combat boots at this wall -- size 12. And along with the boots he left a note on Marine Corps stationery," Austin said. "He wrote, 'brothers, these are my lucky boots. They got me through two wars on the ground in Iraq. I figured you would appreciate them more than the garbage man.' And his note continued: 'The truth of the matter is that we owe you an awful lot. If your generation of Marines had not come home to jeers and insults and protests, my generation would not have come home to thanks, and handshakes and hugs.'"
American service members have made a commitment to the American people to protect the nation, Austin said, and to always defend this democracy.
"These aren't just words, these are vows, and we can make them real because of the long unbroken tradition of sacrifice that joins those who served to those who serve now and those who will step up to serve in the years to come," he said. "For that, we owe our veterans not only our deepest gratitude, but also our unwavering commitment to the democratic values that you have been so proud to defend. Thank you to all of our veterans for answering your country's call. We will never forget what you have given us."