President Jimmy Carter went to fog-shrouded Arlington National Cemetery yesterday to plead for the nation to remember its "ignored" veterans - the men who fought in the controversial Vietnam War.
"We owe them a special debt," said Carter in an emotional speech before a crowd of several hundred flag-waving veterans at the annual wreath-laying veterans at the annual wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Carter said Vietnam veterans "have been criticized and rebuffed because they answered their call of duty," often more punished at home than they were threatened in combat.
Having been "ignored as though their presence was an awkward reminder of the anguish." Vietnam veterans should be "especially honored," the president urged.
"We never fully realized what it cost them." Carter said, turning to Veterans Administration head Max Cleland who lost both his legs and right arm in Vietnam.
With that, Carter threw his arms around Cleland in a warm embrace. As the president gently lifted the disabled veteran's body from the wheelchair, Cleland's eyes filled with tears.
The president's strongly worded plea for recognition of Vietnam veterans was followed by the unveiling of a memorial plaque honoring "those members of its armed forces who served honorably in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam conflict."
According to VA, 9,834,000 Americans took part in the Vietnam era conflict. Of that number, 47,000 were killed in action, 62,000 died "from other causes" and more than 8.7 million with an average age of 31, are living.
The bronze plaque that will be displayed in the trophy room of the Arlington Cemetery amphitheater was authorized by an act of Congress earlier this year.
Although a crypt for the entombment of an unknown soldier from the Vietnam conflict is available, the Department of Defense said it had been unable to provide one. The selection was impossible, the Army said, because every dead soldier from the war has been identified with sophisticated techniques of pathology.
Carter's speech followed the traditional wreath-laying ceremony. The president stood grim-faced under misty, charcoal-gray skies while a bugler played taps.
Then he turned and walked into the amphitheater where he was greeted by the flag-waving veterans as the Army band struck up, "Hail to The Chief."
Carter's Veterans Day remarks were filled with appreciation for all veterans including promise of a strong national defense.
"I will, as president, make our own preparation so thorough that no enemy would ever wish or dare to test us." Carter said.
The audience, waving flags, wearing buttons, medals and some bearing scars of battle, applauded.
"We are fortunate that no Americans are dying in battle anywhere in the world today," Carter said.
As the boom from cannons echoed over the white tombstone-covered hills, many elderly members of the audience wiped tears from their eyes.
The veterans of World War I were also singled out at yesterday's ceremony and, while the band played "Over There," Carter could be seen mouthing the words of the song while Cleland kept time by tapping on the arm of his wheelchair.
After a group of flag-bearing veterans paraded down the aisle to the tune of "The Star Spangled Banner," the president turned and said in a soft voice, "It's beautiful."