WASHINGTON -- The United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration today hosted "Welcome Home! A Nation Honors our Vietnam Veterans and their Families," on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
The first of a three-day event on the Mall marks the 50th anniversary of when the last combat troops left South Vietnam in 1973.
Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro recognized attendees from Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand and thanked them for standing shoulder-to-shoulder with U.S. forces during the Vietnam War.
"I thank you for your presence," Del Toro said. "I'm grateful both for the sacrifices made by your people during the Vietnam War, and for your steadfast support and our joint endeavors to this day.
"It is not only appropriate, but absolutely essential that we, as a nation, take time to focus on this period in our country's history, and especially, to thank these most deserving of our citizens, our Vietnam veterans," he said.
Del Toro noted that "these Vietnam veterans made their mark on who I am today, helping guide my own actions and decisions over the decades. I am indebted to them, for they helped shape my character, and helped me become a more proficient Navy officer, a better leader, and a better secretary of the Navy."
Many veterans live with the wounds, visible or not, that were inflicted while serving their nation in a time of conflict. And many families live with the loss of their loved ones, the daily absence of a sailor, soldier, Marine or airman who never returned from the war, he said.
"There are no words that can do justice to the grief, for the sacrifices made by the service members and their survivors. No words. But we can look you in the eye and tell you sincerely that we stand with you today in solidarity. You have our thanks, our respect and our steadfast support," he said.
Former Army 1st Lt. Brian Miles Thacker, a Vietnam veteran and Medal of Honor recipient, was the guest speaker.
"One of the things you learn with this award is that it's not a me award. It's an us award. And the choir is very large," he said, meaning reliance and recognition of fellow soldiers and support personnel associated with the valorous action.
Thacker noted that he was one of the fortunate ones to survive the war. He said he's met with Gold Star families of those who were killed in battle and the experience was solemn and sobering.
As a member of the 92nd Artillery, Thacker was in Kontum Province, South Vietnam, on March 31, 1971, when a numerically superior North Vietnamese Army force launched a well-planned dawn attack on the small, isolated, hilltop fire base, according to his medal citation.
Employing rockets, grenades, flamethrowers and automatic weapons, the enemy forces penetrated the perimeter defenses and engaged the defenders in hand-to-hand combat, the citation states.
Throughout the morning and early afternoon, Thacker rallied and encouraged the U.S. and Republic of Vietnam soldiers in heroic efforts to repulse the enemy. He occupied a dangerously exposed observation position for a period of four hours while directing friendly air strikes and artillery fire against the assaulting enemy forces, the citation states.
"His personal bravery and inspired leadership enabled the outnumbered friendly forces to inflict a maximum of casualties on the attacking enemy forces and prevented the base from being overrun," the citation states.
By late afternoon, the situation had become untenable. Thacker organized and directed the withdrawal of the remaining friendly forces. With complete disregard for his personal safety, he 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, the citation states.
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. Although wounded and unable to escape from the area himself, he successfully eluded the enemy forces for eight days until friendly forces regained control of the fire base, the citation states.