Secretary of Defense Speech

Remarks at the National POW/MIA Recognition Day Ceremony


Good morning.  Thank you, Chairman, for those kind words and above all for your service.  You’ve made it matter every day you’ve been our chairman.

Now on November 20, 1943, American Marines and sailors began an assault on Betio, an island in the Pacific, on the Tarawa Atoll.  The United States believed securing Tarawa was critical, but it was so heavily defended that one enemy commander claimed, quote, “a million Americans couldn't take Tarawa in 100 years.” 

Well he was wrong.  Americans took Tarawa in 76 hours…but at a heavy cost.  Over those three days, more than 1,000 Americans died and more than 2,000 were wounded.  Too many were buried in graves quickly lost to history.

Senator Cotton, distinguished guests, colleagues past and present, thank you for being here on this important day to talk about one of our most important commitments: to members of service like them, to bring them, our men and women in uniform, like those lost at Tarawa, home to their families. 

Thank you as well to the family and veterans organizations whose advocacy helped establish National POW/MIA Recognition Day and raise the POW/MIA flag over the Pentagon and above buildings around the country.  And, most importantly, thank you to the veterans, including many former POWs, and the families of those still missing who join us – you honor us with your presence.

In a year of anniversaries – when we mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s end, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and the 40th anniversary of the Vietnam War’s end – today we remember that even when war ends, not everyone comes home.  And we recommit to making sure they do.  That’s because – as Chairman Dempsey explained – we never forget. 

While we currently – and thankfully – have no American POWs in captivity from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we know what that commitment means for our servicemembers who were held captive and those who waited for them here at home, and for all those serving today. 

We can ask Bob Davis, who is here with his wife Floss, and their grandson Coast Guard Lieutenant Taylor Kellogg.  After landing in France nine days after D-Day, Bob fought in the battles of Saint-Lô and Mortain before being captured by German soldiers.  He was held as a POW for six months. 

And we can ask Tom Horio, also here with us today.  Tom arrived in South Vietnam in December 1968 where he served with the 1st Battalion of the 10th Cavalry Regiment before being captured in May 1969.  He spent over 1,400 days in captivity as a POW before he was released as part of Operation Homecoming in 1973.

Bob and Tom, on behalf of President Obama and the entire Department of Defense, thank you for your service.  Thank you for your sacrifice.

Some of our service members, our civilians, and their families have made the ultimate sacrifice.  To keep our commitment to them, Defense Department personnel travel all around the world, working in quiet archives, remote field sites, and cutting-edge forensic labs. 

I saw some of this work in June at a Defense Department personnel accounting office in Hanoi, where I also visited the lake where John McCain’s aircraft was shot down before he was taken prisoner.  Senator McCain, once a Vietnam POW, is now the distinguished Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

As a result of the Department’s worldwide efforts, this year, Marine Private Jack Redman, who fought and died in Tarawa, was among those returned home and buried.  So was Army Corporal Nehemiah Butler, who was killed in action south of Seoul in 1950.  And also Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Ed[win] Morgan, who was lost on an armed reconnaissance mission near the Laos-Vietnam border in 1966. 

But we still have work to do.  Far too many families still have to wonder about the fates of their fathers and grandfathers, their husbands, sisters.  Today, today there are 73,515 missing from World War II; 7,841 missing from the Korean War; 126 missing from the Cold War; and 1,626 missing from the Vietnam War. 

As we work to provide the fullest possible accounting to those families, we continue to improve our personnel accounting program and find new ways to meet one of our oldest and most sacred obligations.

Our POW/MIA programs, improvement programs rather, are coming on-line.  Over the past year, with Congress’s encouragement and support, the Defense Department created the new Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which combined the activities and resources of three different organizations and over 600 staff [members].

Amid the reorganization, we have identified 67 missing servicemembers this year, and we expect to identify more.  That’s a relief to their families, though it is also short of where we aim to be.  But we have opportunities to make additional progress – for example, we are working diligently to identify those lost at Pearl Harbor aboard the U.S.S. Oklahoma and buried as unknowns in Hawaii. 

We, we here, are a learning organization, always striving to be at the forefront of everything we do.  That’s why we have the finest fighting force the world has ever known.  Just as the lessons we learned in our 20th century wars helped us improve how we have cared for the wounded, the fallen, and their families during our recent wars…we’re using 21st century methods to meet our commitments to those who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War, and remain missing.

We’re looking to expand our work and expand our partnerships.  Our work with the nonprofits History Flight and BentProp are two examples of our collaboration with private organizations and individuals.  We are also working with academic and other foreign partners to help account for our missing.

We’re also harnessing new technology.  Investments and advances in forensic science will allow us to identify the previously unidentifiable remains of some of the fallen.  And we recently opened a state-of-the art facility in Hawaii to help us take advantage of these new methods.

And that’s why we’re using new communication channels to keep in touch with the families of the missing.  We’re developing a password-protected, cloud-based website that will allow our families to be informed around the clock.

One of the reasons our men and women in uniform will stop at nothing to achieve their missions, on Tarawa or Saint-Lô, at Inchon or Khe-Sanh, in Fallujah or Helmand, is that they know we’ll stop at nothing to bring them home to their families.

I’m sure that’s one reason why Private Redman served so valiantly on Tarawa 72 years ago.  Though Tarawa was his first experience with combat, he fought heroically, only to be shot by a sniper on the third and final day of the battle.  One of Private Redman’s childhood friends said of him, quote, “he died a hero's death.”  His remains, though, were lost, buried on Tarawa with many others. 

But, last year, a piece of dog tag was found.  When it was examined, the letters R-E-D could be identified.  His remains were subsequently recovered by a DPAA team and as a result, this May, Private Redman was given a hero’s burial in Illinois.

Every man and woman in uniform may not fight in battles like Tarawa…I hope they don’t.  But every soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, and Coast Guardsman should know that we will, we will – I will – do everything we can to bring them back to their families, as we helped do with Private Redman.

Thank you again to Bob Davis and Tom Horio, and the rest of the veterans here and around the country.  And thank…you for being with us this morning.  May God bless you, bless your families, and bless this great nation in the years to come.