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WASHINGTON — With much of the Korean War generation now in their 80s, thousands of veterans gathered Saturday to ensure the legacy of their military effort lives on after them.
"A lot of people know it as a forgotten victory," said Salvatore Scarlato, 80, who served in Korea in 1952 and 1953. "We have to make sure that the people of the U.S. know that it exists."
As the nation marks the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice Saturday, those who served in the conflict say that opportunities to testify about their military efforts are fading with time. The average age of a Korean War veteran is 81, according to the Department of Defense.
In a speech at the ceremony Saturday, President Obama reminded the Korean War veterans that most of them are now in their 80s, and a few of them even attended the event in their old uniforms, "which still fit," Obama remarked. "Let me just say you look outstanding."
Victor Vargas, 90, who served in Korea from 1950 to 1951 and traveled to the ceremony from Barranquitas, Puerto Rico, said many of the veterans he fought with felt that their efforts were eclipsed by other wars. The Korean War fell between World War II, which ended in 1945, and the Vietnam War, in which U.S. involvement began in the late 1950s.
"They started the Vietnam War, and that took precedence," said Vargas, who also fought in that war and World War II.
Titled "Heroes Remembered," the ceremony included tributes to Korean War veterans, a recognition of countries that were U.S. allies during the war and speeches from government officials, including Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
But veterans say it's not the responsibility of the U.S. government alone to spread awareness of the Korean War.
Gene Richards, 83, who served in Korea in 1952 and 1953, visits middle and elementary schools to educate students about the war as part of the Korean War Veterans Association "Tell America Program."
"We're all in our middle 80s," he said. "We'll keep the legacy going for many years."
James LaForest, 81, who served in Korea from 1950 to 1953, said the war marked the first time the U.S. fought abroad to protect its values at home.
Americans didn't know anything about Korea before their flight there, he said. "We went to war to found our nation, fight in wars to keep it going, and are still fighting today."
Many veterans said that if they had to do it all over again, they'd still be proud to serve.
"If I had to do it again, I would," said Joe Paul Cole, 79, who served in 1950 and 1951. "We got the chance to fight with a lot of different people."
David Jackson contributed to this report.