President Obama honored fallen soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery just outside Washington, D.C., on Monday morning, where he urged Americans “to be worthy of the sacrifice they make in our name.”
The president’s message was one of solemnity and remembrance, but also of triumph.
“Last Memorial Day, I stood here and spoke about how for the first time in nine years, Americans were no longer fighting and dying in Iraq,” he said. “This time next year, we will mark the final Memorial Day of our war in Afghanistan.”
Last Thursday, President Obama delivered a major counterterrorism speech at the National Defense University where he defended his administration’s use of drone strikes, again called for the closing of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and urged that the United States is still a nation at war. He reiterated the latter point at Arlington, saying that though “this should be self-evident,” not every person is directly touched by war as they were in generations past.
“But for those of us who bear the solemn responsibility of sending these men and women into harm’s way,” President Obama said, “we know the consequences all too well. I feel it every time I meet a wounded warrior, every time I visit Walter Reed, every time I grieve with a Gold Star family.”
Veterans, though, are fighting a massive backlog at Veterans Affairs, which has waylaid their disability checks. The administration has vowed to clear out the backlog by 2015.
Before his Memorial Day tribute, the president, accompanied by his wife Michelle, placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns to the playing of Taps. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey introduced President Obama, followed by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who released his own Memorial Day message of thanks earlier on Monday.
In the days leading up to Memorial Day, soldiers placed American flags on over 260,000 graves across the national cemetery.
Earlier Monday morning, the president and first lady hosted a breakfast at the White House with the families of Gold Star fallen soldiers.
President Obama also paid tribute to U.S. troops in his weekly radio address on Saturday, calling them heroes who “gave America the most precious thing they had – ‘the last full measure of devotion.’”
Memorial Day was first observed in 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery, three years after the Civil War. It was then called Decoration Day and was meant to serve as a time for Americans to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers.