US President Barack Obama stands at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall during ceremonies to commemorate the Vietnam War’s 50th anniversary on Memorial Day May 28, 2012 in Washington, DC. Memorial Day is observed in remembrance for those died while serving in the US military. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages
By Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In marking the 50th anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War, President Obama challenged veterans and Americans to correct the narrative about the men and women who served during one of the most controversial conflicts in American history.
Speaking at Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, Obama paid tribute to the 58,000 Americans who died in the conflict and 3 million other Americans who fought in Vietnam. The president used his address at the Wall to call on Americans to resolve to take care of its veterans as well as they have taken care of us.
In a 23-minute speech, Obama lamented that Vietnam veterans were too often blamed for a war they didn't start when they should have been commended for serving with valor.
He expressed regret that the misdeeds of a few sometimes overshadowed the honorable service of the many. "It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened," Obama said.
"That is why here today we resolve that it will never happen again." The ceremony at the Wall, a hallowed space on the National Mall, marks the beginning of a 13-year effort to honor those who fought in Vietnam.
Obama acknowledged there is some fuzziness of just when the Vietnam war started-American advisers fought and died in Vietnam in the mid 1950s and major combat operations did not begin until the mid 1960s. Obama said that Vietnam era veterans deserve much of the credit for the focus that Congress and the White House has put on helping veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan transition after a decade of war. On a larger scale, the president said that Vietnam has reshaped the American outlook on war-making its leaders more cautious about entering battle.
"Because of Vietnam and our veterans, we now use American power smarter," Obama said. "We honor our military more, we take care of our veterans better. Because of the hard lessons of Vietnam, because of you, America is stronger than before."
There are still more than 1,600 U.S. troops missing in Vietnam. The 93-year-old mother of one of those soldiers, Donald Shay, Jr., sat near the front row. Obama noted her presence, and the American commitment to bringing them home. "Let's resolve to do everything in our power to bring them home," Obama said.