WATCH: U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin salutes veterans in speech on National Mall

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin thanked veterans for making American “safer and stronger” in a speech under rainy skies at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall Friday.

Watch Austin’s remarks in the player above.

“To all of our veterans, lending your talents to the United States military, you made us stronger and smarter,” Austin said. “By serving with courage and compassion, you set an example for the next generation, and by giving so much, you reminded us that this democracy is worth defending.”

The nation’s first Black secretary of defense said “American troops should always come home to thanks and handshakes and hugs.”

“And as we know, after the Vietnam War, that wasn’t always the case,” he said. “Yet, so many veterans who work to build bridges, to heal the nation’s wounds and to ensure that their successors would be treated with dignity and respect.”

Austin also paid special mention to Jan Scruggs, the Army veteran who fought in Vietnam, and later founded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which built the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

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Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough also addressed the gathering and noted that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated 40 years ago.

According to the Defense Department, the site is the most-visited memorial on the National Mall in Washington, drawing over 5 million people each year.

“Never forget the ripples set in motion by the Americans who fought in Vietnam, including veterans who may never have fully realized what a difference they made to those around them, because service lifts up others,” Austin said.

“It enriches your own life, and it makes you part of a proud American story,” he said.