- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2004

President Bush marked Memorial Day by reading aloud the letters sent home by fallen soldiers in the war on terror, telling the families of all war dead that “America acknowledges a debt that is beyond our power to repay.”

At a gathering of a few thousand people at Arlington National Cemetery — most of them service members and the families of those fighting overseas — Mr. Bush’s speech was greeted with hearty applause.

Minutes earlier, under gray skies and a light drizzle, Mr. Bush laid a wreath before the Tomb of the Unknowns and led a national moment of silence.

The president put the war on terror on the same historical footing as World War II, two days after dedicating a sprawling national memorial to those who fought the Axis powers 60 years ago.

“Those who have fought these battles and served this cause can be proud of all they have achieved,” Mr. Bush said of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. “And these veterans of battle will carry with them for all their days the memory of the ones who did not live to be called veterans.”

Of the roughly 200,000 troops who have engaged the enemy in Afghanistan and Iraq since the September 11 terrorist attacks, 924 had died as of Friday, according to the Pentagon. Of those, 640 were killed by hostile fire and 284 by “friendly fire” or accidents.

“Since the hour this nation was attacked, we have seen the character of the men and women who wear our country’s uniform,” Mr. Bush said. “In places like Kabul and Kandahar, in Mosul and Baghdad, we have seen their decency and their brave spirit.”

The sacrifice of today’s U.S. troops, like those of previous generations who fought around the world to defend freedom, has not been in vain, Mr. Bush said.

“Because of their fierce courage, America is safer, two terror regimes are gone forever, and more than 50 million souls now live in freedom,” he said.

The president was introduced by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, who appeared surprised by the sustained round of applause and cheers he received from the crowd.

“Thank you for being here today and for your truly courageous leadership of our country,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “Your responsibilities are enormous in peacetime. In times of war, I can only say, ‘thank you,’ for all you do for all of us.”

Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, marked Memorial Day with a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the morning and a march with veterans in Portsmouth, Va., home of the longest continuous Memorial Day parade in the United States.

Mr. Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, suggested that Mr. Bush should be voted out of office this fall because “it’s time to do what it takes to build an America that’s once again respected in the world.”

“I met so many [citizen soldiers] when I fought in Vietnam, and I have met them since from Desert Storm, Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraqi Freedom,” said Mr. Kerry, who served four months in Vietnam and earned three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star. “The love of country and sense of duty I have seen and known is special. You carry it with you always.”

Mr. Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War and was not involved in active combat.

In Iraq yesterday, American soldiers remembered their slain comrades during Memorial Day ceremonies.

“When we return to our home stations, we must ensure that we never forget those fallen comrades that deployed with us that will not return to their loved ones,” Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the senior U.S. military officer there, said during a ceremony at Baghdad’s Camp Victory, according to the Associated Press.

“We must not walk away from this mission. Otherwise, their sacrifices will in fact be in vain. This mission is too important for America, for the world, and for us as warriors.”

At Arlington National Cemetery, Mr. Bush read a portion of a letter sent home from Iraq by Army Capt. Joshua Byers, who died in combat while commanding a 120-person unit.

“I will give the men everything I have to give,” Capt. Byers wrote to his parents. “I love them already, just because they’re mine. I pray, with all my heart, that I will be able to take every single one of them home when we finish our mission here.”

Support for the war began to dip after the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. soldiers hit the front pages of newspapers around the world last month.

The Pentagon and the president have said the abuses were the actions of “a few” and not indicative of the character of U.S. soldiers.

After reading excerpts from two other letters, Mr. Bush drove that point home.

“This is the quality of the people in our uniform,” Mr. Bush said.

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