By Geneva Sands - 05/28/12 07:48 PM EDT
President Obama commemorated the 50th anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War on Monday, calling the remembrance a "chance to set the record straight" during a Memorial Day address on the National Mall.
"One of our most painful chapters in our history was Vietnam, most particularly for how we treated our troops, who served there," said Obama. "You were often blamed for a war you didn't start, when you should have been commended for serving your country with valor. You were sometimes blamed for misdeeds of a few, when the honorable service of the many should have been praised. You came home and sometimes were denigrated, when you should have been celebrated."
Obama said the anniversary is an opportunity for veterans to tell their story "as it should have been told all along."
"It's another chance to set the record straight. That's one more way that we keep perfecting our union, setting the record straight, and it starts today," he said.
The president was joined by first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden at the memorial.
Memorial Day marks the beginning of a 13-year federal, state and local program aimed at honoring and giving thanks to those who served during the Vietnam War, according to the White House.
Obama acknowledged that although the precise start of the war is still contested, January 1962 "illustrated the changing nature" of the U.S. involvement in the conflict, which began as early as the mid-1950s.
"Fifty years later we come to this wall, to this sacred place to remember … Today's Memorial Day, when we recall those who gave everything in the darkness of war, so we could stand here in the glory of spring," he said.
During his remarks, Obama asked all Vietnam veterans in the audience to stand so he could tell them the words that "always greet our troops" when they return.
"Welcome home. Welcome home. Thank you. We appreciate you. Welcome home," Obama said to applause from the crowd.
The president pointed to the political controversy and sensitivity surrounding the war and called on all Americans to support returning troops, regardless of politics.
"Let’s resolve that in our democracy we can debate and disagree — even in a time of war. But let us never use patriotism as a political sword. Patriots can support a war; patriots can oppose a war. And whatever our view, let us always stand united in support of our troops, who we placed in harm's way," he said.
President Obama echoed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's earlier speech at the memorial, promising "to do everything in our power" to continue the search for troops still missing in action, including 1,666 Americans from the Vietnam War.
"Today the Department of Defense personnel are working diligently to identify and locate the remains of fallen service members missing in action in Vietnam. Let me assure you that this sacred mission will continue until all of our troops come home and are accounted for," Panetta said.
Obama concluded his speech by telling Vietnam veterans and their families that the "task of telling your story continues."
Earlier Monday, Obama was joined by the top members of his defense team, including Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey to commemorate Memorial Day with a speech, which touched on the end of a decade of U.S. conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, following the traditional wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.