Remarks at a Meet and Greet With Staff and Families of U.S. Embassy Vientiane, Laos
Secretary of State
AMBASSADOR CLUNE: Well, I have the great pleasure of introducing somebody who needs no introduction, Secretary of State John Kerry. As most of you know, prior to joining us at the State Department in 2013, Secretary Kerry served for 28 years in the United States Senate, the last four as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He comes from very good stock. His father, Richard Kerry, was a Foreign Service officer. And he’s very familiar with this part of the world, particularly with the Mekong River, having served two tours of duty during the Vietnam War patrolling the waters down in the delta.
And in the Senate, as chairman of the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, Secretary Kerry worked to advance a mission that’s very dear to our heart here at Embassy Vientiane: the effort to account for personnel missing in action from the war. And Secretary Kerry just had a little meeting with our own Bill Gadoury, reconnecting from their long work together.
And of course, as you know, he was the Democratic Party’s candidate for President in 2004. And then finally and perhaps most importantly, he is the husband of Teresa Heinz Kerry, and together they have two daughters, three sons, and three grandchildren. So ladies and gentlemen --
SECRETARY KERRY: Six grandchildren.
AMBASSADOR CLUNE: Six? All right. Secretary of State John Kerry.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you very much. Thank you.
Sabaidee, sabaidee, sabaidee. Thank you very, very much. What an honor to be here. And I love the kids. Thank you for coming. How you all doing?
SECRETARY KERRY: Everybody good? Happy New Year to you. Been good to you so far? Not so sure, right? Anyway. Well, thank you very, very much for coming to join your parents and families and be here with me today. And thank you all for taking a minute to say hello. I really appreciate it. Let me just begin by thanking Daniel Clune and his wife Judy. We are so appreciative for the job that he is doing out here. It’s an enormously important job, as you can imagine, and he has had quite a career. This is a wonderful place, we both agree, to spend a little time as an ambassador or in whatever role you’re playing. It’s calmer than a lot of other places but no less important in terms of what we’re trying to achieve. So a profound thank you. And likewise, Michael Kleine – I don’t know if he’s here somewhere. Where’s Michael? Michael’s over here, and Hiroko – Hiroko’s not here? Wife?
PARTICIPANT: She couldn’t make it today.
SECRETARY KERRY: She couldn’t make it. Okay. Please tell her I called her out here. (Laughter.) Tell her not to be mad. Anyway, I wish her well with everything.
And we have a couple of special people here. Khoutthaly Chittaphong is here. Khoutthaly may not be here right now. He’s probably not here because he’s a motor pool driver and he’s driving somewhere, but – where is he? Is he over here? Thank you very – I’m calling on you because he has served. (Applause.) And Oudom Luangrath – Oudom. Both of them have served 28 years working to help make this work. (Applause.) Thank you very, very much. Thank you. All right.
Now, this – I came here – I guess first time I came here was in the 1990s, and Bill Gadoury reminded me of that a little while ago. And Bill – I said to people upstairs, as far as I’m concerned, Bill’s role is heroic. And the whole team that works with him, they work quietly. I would say that probably 99 percent of Americans don’t know that they’re here doing what they’re doing, but for a lot of Americans, this is one of the most important missions in the world because they’re still missing their loved ones and they don’t have closure. And people deserve and want closure. War has terrible, lingering scars, and where you have an ability to be able to address them, we should.
Well, this is a commitment that was made a long time ago. President George Herbert Walker Bush and his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, worked very hard at this with some of us in the Senate. And we put in place an accounting system, and it was carried on by President Bill Clinton, by President George W. Bush, and by President Obama. It’s still there. It is the single most comprehensive, exhaustive, painstaking effort to keep faith with people who go to war and keep faith with their families. And we are still trying to repatriate the remains or find out what happened to people who were missing. It’s an extraordinary effort which, I just told Bill and folks with me from the embassy, no country in human history has ever made the efforts that we are making to keep faith between families and soldiers who serve.
And all you have to do is go back and read Abraham Lincoln, who wrote a brilliant letter – George Washington, I think, originally – that if you don’t take care of your veterans and you don’t take care of the families, then the next generation or the next time you need people to serve, people may have serious questions about whether or not the country cares and you should. So what Bill is doing and has done – in many ways since 1970, when he was serving and working and reporting people who were missing, but continuously, and picked up formally in 1984 – he is still here and he is still doing this extraordinary job. And I just want everybody here to say thank you to him for that, and to the whole team. (Applause.)
I’m also very proud of the fact that we are making a very special effort also not just to take care of ourselves, but to take care of other people in the countries that were affected by the war. And so here in Laos particularly, we are doing work to de-mine, to take care of unexploded ordnance, and we’ve made enormous progress. It used to be that about 300 people a year were the casualties of unexploded ordnance or mines of some kind, and now we’ve gotten that down to 50. And it’s 50 too many, so we have to stay at this, and that’s another mission of this embassy. And it’s a very important mission.
We also need to make certain that people who might have been exposed to dioxin or other effects of war are also helped, and I have visited in Cambodia, I visited in Vietnam offices where people are getting artificial limbs, prosthetics, where they’ve lost them due to one of these explosions or even due to the war itself. And I think we can be proud of the work that we are doing there.
We are now at a place where we’re beginning to build a different future. We’re not just – our relationship is not just defined by the things we’re doing to take care of the past. In fact, our relationship is more defined by the things we are doing to define the future. And so we’re working on nutrition. We’re working on agriculture, working on narcotics enforcement together. We’re working on agriculture generally, working on economic policy, trying to see if we can help Laos now get WTO status and general – GSP status. We are hopefully – with our Lao-American Nutrition Institute partnership that you’ve established, we’re going to help people deal with the problem of under – of malnutrition and stunting of kids that comes as a result of malnutrition.
So bottom line, my friends, is between that and the work we’re doing on the Mekong River, with the Lower Mekong Initiative and the advice and counsel we are giving to help bring technical people – the Corps of Engineers, experts from Department of Interior, from the Department of Energy – we are helping to create sustainable practices for whatever takes place on this great resource, which doesn’t just belong to one country. It doesn’t belong to the headwaters and it doesn’t belong to the delta, it belongs to everybody. And we have to make sure that everybody is able to share in its benefit.
So I just want to really say thank you to you. I’m privileged to be a Secretary of State for the period of duration I serve at the pleasure of the President, and when the President goes, I go, and you get a new Secretary. That’s the way it works. It’s a great thing about America: We transfer power peacefully on the 20th of January every four years, and it’s an amazing process. And I hope every country continues to take note of the brilliance of that process.
But it also means there’s a change. For you, you work the same way, with the same intensity, with the same passion, and I want to say thank you to all of you for that. I think being in the United States embassies of our country or consulates, representing your nation – and those of you who are local employees who work with us, you get to get up in the morning, I hope, and go to work and feel good about it, because you are sharing in making your country stronger, your region more stable, and making life better for your people. There aren’t a lot of jobs where people get to get up every day and feel absolutely good about the job they’re doing, believe me. Lot of people go to work just because they have to, not because they love it.
So I want to make certain that you realize President Obama and I have your backs. We’ll do everything we can to continue to provide for security, to provide for comfort, to help deal with the many problems that exist and challenges of living abroad, of leaving your families in some cases, certainly leaving some of your family in all cases, and being overseas to undertake this great mission. And I really tip my hat to you. I think it’s a great, great endeavor. I feel very privileged to be the Secretary for these few years that we get to make a difference.
And believe me, we are making a difference. I believe the United States is more engaged in more places all at one time than at any time in American history. We just concluded the TPP, Trans-Pacific Partnership. Forty percent of global GDP is in that agreement. We just completed an agreement in Paris with 186 nations which we played a critical role in bringing about because we went to China, worked with China to undo the failure of the past in which China was opposed to what we were doing. And we brought China along, and that broke the dam, broke the gates open, so we were able to get an agreement out of Paris that we’re going to do something about climate change.
For two and a half years we negotiated to take a nuclear weapon threat and do away with it. And Iran, in great controversy – it wasn’t easy. But now, what was a two-month period to break out to get a weapon is more than a year, and there is no way possible, we believe, under this current arrangement for Iran to try to make a weapon without our knowing about it. So we’re safer. The region is safer.
We stopped Ebola when people were predicting a million people were going to die, and we sent American forces over to Africa, West Africa, and we made a difference, together with France and Britain, in stopping Ebola. We’re about to see the first generation of people born in Africa free of AIDS – first AIDS-free generation of children since we learned about the scourge of AIDS.
I could run to many other places. We’re working on a Syria peace process, on a Libya peace process, on Yemen peace process. We’re working – I’m going to Beijing in a day and a half to meet on North Korea. And I’m only just beginning to scratch the surface of the places that people like you every day – diplomats in the United States Foreign Service – are getting up and going out to try to make a difference somewhere in the world. So you’re part of a great tradition. You’re part of a great mission. And I’m privileged to serve with you, and I want to say thank you to every single one of you for what you do. God bless you all. Thank you very, very much. (Applause.)