President Obama marked Memorial Day on Monday by placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery and calling on the nation to reflect on its “debt to its fallen heroes,” including slaves.
“On this day we remember it is on our behalf they gave their lives,” Mr. Obama said in a morning address at Arlington. “We remember the blessings we enjoy as Americans came at a dear cost. Our nation owes a debt to its fallen heroes that we can never fully repay.”
The president chose to include America's slaves, and those who were freed from slavery, on the historical roster with the nation's war dead from the military services of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard.
Mr. Obama said the nation Monday was memorializing “an unbroken chain that stretches back to the earliest days of our Republic.”
“Today we memorialize our first patriots,” Mr. Obama said. “Blacksmiths and farmers, slaves and freedmen, who never knew the independence they won with their lives. We memorialize the armies of men, and women disguised as men, black and white, who fell in apple orchards and cornfields in a war that saved our union.”
He said that chain of honor has continued through battlefields in Normandy and Manila, Inchon and Khe Sanh, Baghdad and Helmand.
The national holiday this year is tinged with a variety of war anniversaries and momentous national security developments. Memorial Day is being commemorated as the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks approaches, and just weeks after a Navy SEAL team killed Osama bin Laden, the terrorist leader who directed the attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
The war in Afghanistan moves toward its 10th year, with U.S. troops pausing in their service this weekend to honor the more than 1,400 servicemen and women killed in combat there.
In Iraq, about 46,000 U.S. troops remain, although combat operations have ended after the deaths of more than 4,400 U.S. troops.
This year also marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, which resulted in the creation of the national burial ground at Arlington.
The weather Monday at Arlington was sunny and sweltering, but the president's participation went much more smoothly than last year's event.
A year ago, Mr. Obama was criticized for skipping the ceremony at Arlington and holding a memorial instead at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery near Chicago. It turned into a rain-soaked nightmare as violent thunderstorms forced the president to cut short the commemoration and spectators fled for cover.
At Arlington, Mr. Obama said the nation was memorializing the “spirit that says: 'Send me, no matter what the mission. Send me, no matter the risk.'"
“The patriots we memorialize today sacrificed not only all they had, but all they would ever know,” he said. “They gave of themselves until they had nothing more to give.”
As he departed the amphitheater at Arlington, Mr. Obama stopped at a section of the cemetery to pay his respects to troops who have fallen since Sept. 11.
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