WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama praised veterans of the Korean War at a ceremony Saturday marking the anniversary of the armistice, using their return to an apathetic America decades ago as a promise to better care for the generation returning from distant battlefields today.
After three and an half years of fighting on the Korean Peninsula, a “forgotten war” quickly following the end of World War II, “among many Americans tired of war, there was, it seemed, a desire to forget,” Obama said.
“You, our veterans of Korean War, deserve better,” he said. “Because here in America, no war should ever be forgotten and no veteran should ever be overlooked.”
Obama spoke at the Korean War Veterans Memorial to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the armistice agreement that stopped the fighting but did not bring peace to a still- divided peninsula.
He reminded the nation that 36,574 Americans were killed in the conflict, which he described as the first Cold War commitment by the United States to forcefully oppose communism.
About 1.7 million Americans fought in Korea, and more than two million Koreans died in the conflict. Nearly 8,000 Americans who fought there are still missing.
Obama’s appearance, which he began by laying a wreath at the memorial, is the first time a U.S. president has participated in such a formal ceremony marking the armistice. An estimated 5,000 people attended the morning event, many of them veterans of that war.
Obama noted that some veterans wore their old uniforms — and that “they still fit.” He then asked “those who are still able to stand” to do so, prompting sustained applause.
The backdrop for the somber event was the unresolved dispute between communist North Korea and U.S.-allied South Korea — almost 30,000 American troops still standing between them.
Tension between the countries has run high this year, and just months ago Kim Jong Un, the North’s 30-year-old leader, suggested he would no longer abide by the 1953 armistice agreement.
Obama used the opportunity to pledge not to repeat the mistake he said was made after World War II, when a fiscally strained nation scaled back the military too quickly. He promised the United States would remain the world’s strongest military power, as his administration works to end more than a decade of war.
While Obama focused his address on the graying veterans before him, his message to younger veterans was unmistakable as they return from years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan to an economy still struggling to recover from deep recession.
Many of those returning men and women have served multiple tours, and Obama cited a headline from the run-up to the Korean War to remind the country of its history with seemingly relentless conflict: “Veterans of World War II recalled for duty.”
“We will make it our mission to give them the respect and the care and the opportunities that they have earned,” Obama said, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Veterans Affairs Ssecretary Eric Shinseki watching from his side.
Obama recited the grim poetry of the Korean War — the battlefield names of Pork Chop Hill, Chosin Reservoir and Heartbreak Ridge.
He described Korea’s harsh winter weather, the life-saving decisions made by troops protecting each other and the mementoes of family some soldiers carried, including a pair of baby booties that dangled from a young lieutenant’s rifle barrel.
That lieutenant survived the war. Richard Shank, now 84, lives in Gainesville, Fla.; the son those baby booties represented is a father now, too.
Obama’s urged the country to no longer view Korea as the “forgotten war,” but as the “forgotten victory,” a term his Cabinet secretaries used. Obama argued that “die for a tie,” an expression that emerged from the war’s bitter aftermath, is inaccurate.
“Here today we can say with confidence that war was no tie,” Obama said, contrasting the North’s poverty and repression to the South’s economic dynamism and democracy.
“That is a victory,” he said. “And that is your legacy.”