Remarks by the Vice President at a World War II Flag Commemoration Ceremony
Melbourne Cricket Grounds
11:47 A.M. (Local)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Mr. President, you're not paying attention? What are you distracting the President for? I’m talking to him. (Laughter.)
Mr. President, it’s an honor to be here with you and everyone -- and, Julie, good to see you. Happy birthday. Happy birthday. (Laughter and applause.) I seem to meet Julie on her birthdays. At my house, I had a birthday cake for her. I don't have a cake, Julie. Sorry. But it’s hell turning 30. (Laughter.) You're going to have a tough time.
Mr. Ambassador, thank you very, very much. And thank you, John, for the care the Return and Service League has taken with this venerable flag. I was whispering in the President’s ear I wish -- and I mean this sincerely -- I wish my mother, Jean Finnegan Biden, from Scranton, Pennsylvania was able to be with me today because when the President and his contingent landed in Papua New Guinea, that's where my two uncles -- two of her brothers ended up, in Army Air Corps, the United States Army. One brother, Ambrose Finnegan, was lost in Papua New Guinea. They never found the body. And the other came home with malaria and was sick off and on for the better part of his life.
But I remember as a kid I used to sit up in the attic where my grandpop had my uncles’ medals. And I used to sneak out of the house with this Army Air Corps patch in my pocket to demonstrate to everybody in the neighborhood I grew up in -- an old Irish-Catholic neighborhood where on Pearl Harbor Day, literally the next day, everyone in the neighborhood -- all five of my mother’s brothers -- went down and joined that day, joined the fight.
And my Uncle Jack Finnegan, who was a registrar at the University of Scranton, talked about the Aussies all the time and how he was proud -- he was proud to serve. And hearing my mother talk about it for so long, I wish she were here to meet you, Mr. President. And it’s a great honor to be here today.
These 48 stars and 13 stripes watched over American Marines as they launched an offensive that marked the turning point in the Pacific theater.
For almost six decades, they’ve served as a reminder of the bond soldiered in steel by those heroes -- the bond that exists between Australia and the United States.
Decades after the war was won, the men of the 1st Marine Division, those who survived the bloody slog of Guadalcanal, they remembered the Melbourne Cricket club. Those men looking back, they still remembered what Australia did for them. And many of them wrote about it and -- has request, what were the memories?
And one of them wrote: “We were farmers, bank clerks, or boys just out of high school with letters of permission stained with our mothers’ tears. We were green kids, thrust into manhood. Melbourne was more than lovely. It was the symbolic civilian environment we had left behind.”
Another wrote: I cannot put onto paper the manner in which those fine Australian people treated we fellows, who had just come out of combat with an enemy and were in dire need -- interesting phrase he uses -- “in dire need of love and affection.” Unusual term, “in dire need of love and affection.”
And the fact is that over 7,000 Marines were killed in that battle; and over 7,700 were wounded; and over 2,000 eventually died from malaria.
And with this flag, we honor every one of those brave men -- Diggers and Marines -- who fought and died side by side in freedom’s defense. And that's a phrase used a lot in political campaigns “the defense of freedom”. All of you, these guys, you, Mr. President, you saved the world. That's not hyperbole. You saved the world in what you did.
And today we continue to honor that enduring legacy of courage, integrity, and the interesting thing to me is the fellowship. I’ve been in and out of Iraq -- Iraq 26 times. I’ve been in and out of Afghanistan more than a dozen. And I watch. I watch. I just was recently in Hawaii with the joint exercise we have going on, meeting the Aussie general who is commanding U.S. forces as I speak. Commanding U.S. -- realize, we're not big on letting other people command our forces. (Laughter.) Command the U.S. forces. I’ve never, never, never heard -- including my son who spent a year in Iraq, came back a highly decorated war veteran before I lost him -- I never heard a single American soldier, whether it was a survivor of World War II in the Pacific, or the Vietnam War, or my son’s generation in Iraq speak with anything other than a sense of awe and friendship when they talk about their Australian military counterparts. That's not hyperbole. That's a fact. That's a fact.
And our two nations, as was pointed out, fought together in every conflict -- major conflict since World War II. And we've shared the burdens of leadership, and that's what we continue to do now -- sharing the burdens of leadership -- both of us. And we know the terrible costs of war, even in victory. The terrible cost of war.
Looking around the room today, I see the same thing I see when I meet with American veterans back home -- the sense of pride, grit, determination, and absolute real live commitment that's in the fiber of your being to do whatever it takes to defend your country. It’s real stuff, man. It’s real. They're all volunteers. Just since 9/11, knowing full well that they're likely to be moved into harm’s way, 5.2 million young Americans have joined; 2.9 million have gone to war.
I carry with me every single day my schedule. I hadn’t planned on saying this, but I’m going -- it’s appropriate. And on the inside flap -- you can't see it here -- but the inside flap, and I’ll show it to my colleagues on the stage: Daily Troop Update. U.S. troops died in Iraq and Afghanistan -- 6,746. Not 6,600 plus. Six thousand seven hundred and forty-six. Not 45, not 44. Every single one of those Fallen Angels represents an entire community back home. Troops Wounded -- 52,400 exactly. Two more than four days ago.
And like you here in Australia, we have the same sense. We only have one sacred obligation as a country -- my country does. We have a lot of obligations -- to the poor, to the homeless, to health, to security. The only sacred obligation we have is to prepare those we send to war and care for them when they come home from war. Our generation, the Vietnam War, 70 percent of the people in your units and mine wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq -- meaning if they had the same wounds in Vietnam would have died. But because of the Golden Hour, they're alive today. Their average life expectancy will be 37 years. Leading Nobel laureates, economists like Stiglitz estimate that's minimum of a $7 billion commitment we have to them for the rest of their lives. Not for a little bit, for the rest of their lives. And the thing I care and love about you guys, you, sir, have the same passion as we do.
And so it’s amazing watching whether my helicopter gets forced down at 10,000 feet in the Upper Kunar Valley in a snowstorm, and realizing there’s a kid with a full pack, gear, Delta Force, with 90 pounds on his back at 12,000 feet, reporting in that we're alive -- 12,000 feet, carrying 90 pounds. The kids you've trained that are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, they're the best soldiers in the history of your country and mine. They've been sent not just once, but twice, three times, four times.
I was asked by General Rodriguez to pin a Silver Star on a young -- happened to be a Navy captain in a FOB, a forward operating base up in the valley. I went to pin it on the kid, and he said, sir, with all due respect, sir, I do not want it.
This is a kid who jumped off the edge of a mountain where this FOB was, with only six people defending it, climbed down about 200 feet, put a kid on his back who had been wounded, carried him back up under gunfire, but 10 hours later, he died. He thought he didn't deserve it because he died.
That's the stuff you all are made of, too. It matters. It matters a lot.
And so the same mettle, the same unwavering commitment to get the job done; to always complete the mission; to never let your country down. And maybe most importantly -- it’s in your ethic and ours -- never leave anyone behind. Never ever leave anyone behind.
And I want to say to you the same thing I say whenever I meet with brave men and women who wear the uniform: We owe you.
We’ll never forget the sacrifices you’ve made for our nations and, quite frankly, for the betterment of the entire world. And the truth is because for decades, Australia and the United States have made the world a better place. Together, we've made the world a better place.
So on behalf of the United States, and the memory of all those Marines, including our ambassador’s dad, who camped on the Melbourne Cricket Grounds -- those farmers, those bank clerks, those boys just out of high school -- thank you, thank you, thank you.
But more importantly, it’s stamped in our mutual DNA. We're together. We've always been together. We have no choice. There’s no way out, guys. You got to like us because we love you. (Laughter.)
My mother used to have an expression. There was a little girl on the bus, who’d get on the school bus and sit next to me. And she was a sweet girl, but she was not the most popular little girl. And I remember saying to my mother when I was in sixth grade. I said, Mom, Kathleen always gets on the bus and sits right next to me and everybody makes fun of me. Thinks she’s my girlfriend.
She looked at me and said, does she like you, Joey? I said, yes. She said, then you like her back. (Laughter.)
Well, we like you guys. You got to like us back. (Laughter.) Thank you for all you've done. Thank you for all you continue to do. God bless you all and may God protect our troops. Thank you. (Applause.)
12:00 P.M. (Local)