This story originally appeared on KUT.
Former Texas House Speaker Ben Barnes introduced Secretary Kerry at the event. Barnes said the former Democratic presidential candidate and long-time senator has a unique history with the war. Kerry enlisted during college and went on to complete two tours in Vietnam, winning a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts.
“Upon his return from Vietnam, he became a national spokesman for the efforts of veterans to end the war, speaking hard truths about the war that many believed had gone badly off the tracks. His words echoed with valor, sincerity and deep consideration,” Barnes said.
Decades later, Kerry said, there remains a lot of emotion surrounding this divisive time in the country’s history, even for him.
“When I testified against the war in Vietnam for the Senate, I spoke of the determination of veterans to undertake one last mission, so that in 30 years when our brothers went down the street without a leg or an arm and people ask ‘why?’ we would say ‘Vietnam,’” Kerry said, choking up. “And not mean a bitter memory, but mean instead the place where America turned and where we helped in the turning.”
The Secretary of State said that since the war, which cost thousands of American lives and more than a million Southeast Asian lives, the two countries have turned a corner.
“Because so many Vietnamese and Americans themselves refuse to let our past define our future, Vietnam, a former adversary, is now a partner with whom we have developed increasingly warm personal and national ties,” he said.
Kerry said the country has learned some lessons since the war. He pointed to the Iran nuclear deal as evidence, but he said he struggles with the strains placed on servicemen and women. He has reservations about having an all-volunteer army during multiple wars.
“One of the dangers of what we have today in this volunteer structure, is I’ve met people who are on their fifth and six deployments,” Kerry said. “And boy, is that tough. That is just really hard for people to hold families together and raise kids, and do the things we expect. So, we’ve got to confront this as a country.”
Kerry said the country needs to do more to make sure veterans are getting adequate and timely healthcare, which remains an ongoing problem. He also discussed the various conflicts in the Middle East. He compared the wars of the 20th century – including the Vietnam War – to the wars of today. It’s like two different worlds, Kerry said.