WASHINGTON - Flanked by Korean War veterans, many proudly bearing the medals and insignias of their military service, defense officials commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Korean War and saluted the veterans during a ceremony held at the Pentagon here today.
"Americans have always been defined by their courage and character and incredible optimism about their country and its values," said Joseph W. Westphal, undersecretary of the Army and the event's keynote speaker. "Korean war veterans are examples of that."
The Korean War began on June 25, 1950, when North Korea launched an attack on South Korea in an effort to place all of Korea under communist rule. By September 1950, the efforts of U.N., United States and South Korean forces held the North Koreans in check at the Pusan Perimeter.
The war would last three years. Afterward, Korea would remain divided into a free, democratic South and a communist-dominated North. The United States since has had a "long and proud" relationship with South Korea, Westphal said.
During the past 60 years, more than 3.5 million Americans have served military duty tours in Korea, Westphal said. The 28,500 U.S. service members who serve in South Korea today, under the leadership of Army Gen. Walter L. Sharp, he said, exemplify the nation's ongoing commitment to the defense of South Korea.
South Korea "is a critical ally, a valued partner, an honored friend of the United States," he said.
Westphal paid tribute to Korean War veterans, and shared the story of Ronald Rosser, who flew in from Ohio to attend the ceremony. In January 1952, he said, then-Army Cpl. Ronald Rosser's unit, Company L, 38th Infantry Regiment, was stopped by heavy fire while assaulting enemy hill positions near the town of Ponggilli, Korea. Armed with only a carbine and a grenade, the 22-year-old Rosser charged the enemy position. Three times he ran out of ammunition and three times he returned to the hill. Although injured himself, he then helped deliver other wounded service members to safety.
Rosser single-handedly killed at least 13 of the enemy that day, and for his actions was awarded the Medal of Honor.
In an interview after the ceremony, Rosser, now 81, said it was an honor to serve "and in a small way" assist 50 million South Korean citizens to enjoy the benefits of a free and democratic society.
"Not many people can say that," Rosser said.
Westphal urged Americans to never forget veterans like Rosser. "Let's never forget freedom is not free and we can never stop thanking those who have paid and continue to pay that price so that we can enjoy the liberty and pursuit of happiness," he said.
Han Duk-soo, ambassador of South Korea, also spoke at the event. Thanks to the courage of Korean War veterans, the ambassador said, "Korean flags still fly over the Republic of Korea and the Korea-U.S. alliance, an alliance forged in blood, is still strong and valued by both sides today. This is why we call the Korean War a true victory."
"You won freedom, democracy and prosperity for our nation," the ambassador told the Korean War veterans.
Today, South Korea serves alongside the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan and the waters of Somalia, the ambassador said.
"As the U.S. partner and friend, South Korea is and will be by your side," he said. "Through your bravery and sacrifice you veterans made that possible.
"So today, we honor you and the 36,000 of your brothers-in-arms who gave their lives so that Korea could be free," the ambassador continued. "For that, the Korean people are eternally grateful to all of you and all of them."
The ceremony's pageantry contrasted with the reception many Korean War veterans received upon their homecoming.
"We came home and no one knew where we'd been," said Jack Keep, who served in the Navy during the Korean War.
"This is a great honor after all of those years, to have this recognition," Keep continued. "It's a blessing to our families to have their fathers and grandfathers honored as well."
"We appreciate the attention," added Keep's friend, Charles Hoak, an Army Korean War veteran. "It shows we're not forgotten."
Today's ceremony marked the beginning of the Defense Department's three-year observance of key events of the Korean War that will culminate with the 60th anniversary of the signing of the armistice on July 27, 2013.