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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

American Veterans (AMVETS) Congressional Medal of Honor Breakfast
Washington, DC
January 20, 2013

Good morning, everyone. Stew Hickey, thanks for that generous introduction and for your leadership as AMVETS National Executive Director. Let me also acknowledge Cleve Greer, your National Commander; thank you for hosting all of us this morning. As well, let me recognize:

  • Leslie Wunderle, National President of the AMVETS National Ladies Auxiliary, and Larry Via, National Second Vice Commander;
  • Leaders of our other Veterans service organizations, including John Hamilton, VFW; Jim Koutz, The American Legion, Larry Polzin, DAV; Jeanette Early, Gold Star Wives of America; Jim Tuohy, Marine Corps League—it's good to see all of you;
  • Most importantly, our honored guests, the 29 Medal of Honor recipients who have joined us, and their families;
  • Other distinguished guests; ladies and gentlemen:

We have gathered, here in Washington, D.C., to witness one of the world's significant political moments, the inauguration of an American President—both a solemn ceremony and a joyous celebration that's already begun. And I am privileged to be here with you this morning both to celebrate tomorrow's inauguration and to salute the recipients of the Medal of Honor who have gathered to honor our President.

In an age when the word "hero" is often cavalierly over used, it's a rare privilege for me to be in the presence of those for whom the term "hero" was intended. And they would be the last, if ever, to apply that term to themselves.

It's been said, "Poor is the nation that has no heroes, but beggared is the nation that has and forgets them." Our honored guests today answered a call to duty, and in doing so, served all of us by establishing a magnificent legacy of valor, a standard beyond the standard of professional military excellence.

Tomorrow, we will also observe an important standard, one that has peacefully marked the progress of our democracy throughout our Nation's history. With appropriate ceremony, President Obama will take the oath of office at his second inauguration.

We, in this room, fully appreciate that the blessings of liberty we enjoy as Americans, including this peaceful and orderly celebration of presidential inaugurations, are all guaranteed by young Americans who, even as we gather here, are standing their posts around the world, safeguarding this great Nation.

We sometimes forget that transfers of power in government are not always orderly or peaceful or respectful; many in this room have served in places where that's a rarity.

And very few have sacrificed more to guarantee our rights and freedoms than those of you who have received the Medal of Honor. It's not something anyone seeks; no one can train for it. In fact, no one expects anyone to make the kinds of sacrifices that warrant its award. In truth, the feats of bravery associated with the Medal of Honor are so far beyond our expectations that, had any recipient failed to act, no one would have criticized him.

Generations of us have grown up in the military awestruck by your Medal of Honor citations—narratives describing unbelievable acts of courage and loyalty and honor. Every youngster in uniform is familiar with why that sets you apart. Yet, as familiar as those narratives are, they are still unexplainable by the rest of us.

Recipients of the Medal of Honor have demonstrated a level of courage and a quality of character that even those who stood with them in battle are hard pressed to fully comprehend, much less explain. The depths of your determination and the heights of your bravery, attained by very few, are something for the ages.

A unique bond develops among Soldiers in combat. Your citations for the Medal of Honor describe what you did, and trust clearly resonates throughout those citations. In the deadly chaos of battle, trust in one another kept you fighting. Trust in combat defies fear, defies pain, and defies concerns about personal safety. We can't quantify it; we can't explain it; but the men we honor today are proof that it exists.

These uncommonly brave men never betrayed the trust others had placed in them. They upheld that trust in the very worst of circumstances, under the most excruciating and dangerous conditions. They sacrificed well-being, safety, and often their own lives to uphold that trust and to protect those alongside whom they fought.

For these reasons, I am humbled to have the opportunity to continue my service as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, caring for the men and women who have protected our way of life, especially those like the men we honor this morning. I am grateful to the President to have this privilege, and I am equally grateful to him and the First Lady, and to the Vice President and Mrs. Biden, for their sincere respect and deep appreciation for those who serve today, and those who have served in years past.

There will no doubt be other calls to duty in the future that will have to be answered by young Americans on battlefields yet to be determined. We want them to know that the Nation respects and cares for those who have "borne the battle." And we want them to have role models of excellence, like the men we honor today, so they can understand the price of freedom. I am told that youngsters today are searching for something to believe in, something greater than themselves, something they can look up to and respect. They don't have to look any further than your amazing examples of loyalty, courage, selfless service, duty, and honor in combat.

We all need heroes, and we are better Americans when we remember your examples of respect and integrity. Continue to provide that spark for all of us. As it says in a famous prayer, "rise above the common level of life." And in doing so, help inspire future generations of Americans by the examples of your own lives, in the aftermath of the actions that set you apart from the rest of us. This country needs its heroes.

May God bless those who serve and have served our Nation in uniform; may God bless the President of the United States of America; and may God continue to bless this wonderful country of ours.

Thank you.