By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
AUCKLAND, New Zealand, Sept. 21, 2012 – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta placed a wreath in memory of New Zealand’s fallen and pinned U.S. medals on five Kiwi Afghanistan veterans during a visit to the Auckland War Memorial Museum today.
In the museum’s Hall of Memories, which has inscribed on its walls the names of all Auckland province service members who died in combat, the sounds of drum and bugle echoed against the marble walls before the wreath laying. The secretary placed a wreath in front of the hall’s central statue, a winged figure atop a globe, then stood with his head bowed for a few moments.
Shortly after the wreath-laying ceremony, Panetta and New Zealand Defense Minister Dr. Jonathan Coleman spoke before a small crowd gathered in another part of the museum to see five New Zealand veterans receive U.S. medals for their service in Afghanistan over the past several years. The five recipients all served at the New Zealand-led Bamiyan Provincial Reconstruction Team.
Coleman welcomed Panetta, saying the secretary’s presence offered “a very special moment for our service people, as well as for their families.”
The secretary thanked the defense minister and said it was “a very profound honor” to visit the museum to pay tribute to New Zealand’s heroes from the past and present.
The U.S. and New Zealand militaries have fought and bled side by side, he said, “in defense of our way of life – whether in Europe or North Africa, in two world wars, in the jungles of Vietnam or the mountains of Afghanistan.”
Those common battles laid the groundwork for an enduring friendship between the two nations’ armed forces, he added.
Now, he said, “a new generation of Americans and Kiwis once again step forward in defense of our way of life.”
The medals he presented today honor the service of New Zealand’s service members in Afghanistan, he said, where that nation’s defense forces “are continuing to make an important difference through their leadership of the Bamiyan Provincial Reconstruction Team.”
Panetta said it was largely through the blood and sweat of New Zealand’s team members that Bamiyan was among the first areas in Afghanistan designated for transition to Afghan security lead. “When the transition is completed there this year, New Zealand will be able to proudly say that it accomplished its mission,” he said.
The secretary presented Army Commendation Medals to Maj. James P. Kaio, Lt. Jason Tinsley, Lt. Karen Joy Bleakley and Capt. M.A. Thomson. Col. Darryl Tracy, now retired, received the Meritorious Service Medal.
The Army Commendation Medal may be presented to members of the U.S. armed forces or the armed forces of a friendly nation who have distinguished themselves by heroism, meritorious achievement or meritorious service. The Meritorious Service Medal may be presented for outstanding service, and typically is reserved for field-grade officers and senior noncommissioned officers.
The secretary is visiting New Zealand through tomorrow on the last leg of a three-country Asia-Pacific tour that also has included stops in Japan and China.