- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Americans from all walks of life - young and old, veterans and civilians, president and actors - gathered Monday to pay tribute to armed-services members who had fallen in defense of the country.

At Arlington National Cemetery, President Obama laid the traditional wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, keeping his head down and eyes closed for several moments during the ceremony.

A handful of VIP guests looked onward as he paid tribute to those who “paid the ultimate price so we might know freedom” and asked Americans to celebrate Memorial Day as a day of “silent remembrance and solemn prayer” with a pledge to serve the nation.

The National Memorial Day Parade marched through downtown Washington, starting at Constitution Avenue and Seventh Street, as war memorials across the region and the nation held holiday events.

Actor Gary Sinise, most famous for his role as Lt. Dan Taylor in the Oscar-winning film “Forrest Gump,” was one of the parade’s several honorary marshals, also including actors Joe Mantegna and Ernest Borgnine.

Before the parade began, Mr. Sinise and his wife gave up their front-row seats in an open-air vehicle to an elderly veteran in the crowd and then stopped to chat and take pictures with fans while the veteran took their seats.

“He’s such a nice guy. He does so much for the veterans, and look at him, he’s even giving up his seat just so they can move a couple of meters for the start of the parade,” said an admiring Janie Karmel, 28, of Fairfax.

After the parade, Mr. Borgnine and Edith Shain gathered at the World War II Memorial with the nonprofit group Call to Service. Members of the group held up photos of fallen servicemen and asked random passersby to do the same.

“It’s good to remember, or people forget too soon. It used to be, say, after 9/11, you would see an American flag on every car or on every doorstep, but you don’t see that anymore. Please don’t forget about our servicemen,” Mr. Borgnine said.

Diane Layfield held a picture of son Travis, an Army lance corporal who was killed in Ramadi, Iraq, in April 2004.

“There is no more higher purpose than to serve our country. We are here to remember our veterans. Nobody would put a face to a name without these photos. It shows that there’s a person, an individual who was someone’s son and not just a name,” she said.

Ms. Shain, the nurse kissed by a sailor in the iconic V-J Day Times Square photo, said that the new generation should provide renewed vigor for community service and help for veterans.

“It’s time for you, the young people, to take the lead. You’re getting the country, keep that in mind. I hope we can keep the spirit of ‘45 alive,” she told The Times.

After the observance at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, two women related to men whose names are on the Wall carried a banner with the inscription “No words, no action, no award of service can truly express our gratitude to your service. We thank you.”

Carla Fleming and Nikki Clayton said they met just hours earlier and decided to make the banner after learning about each other’s relatives. Miss Clayton, whose grandfather William was a fighter pilot, said she just wanted to say thanks.

“I’m here to shake a vet’s hand and make sure they never think that we forget about their service,” she said.

At the Arlington event, Mr. Obama lauded the military and their families, especially thanking those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, during a speech after the wreath-laying.

“My grandfather served in Patton’s Army in World War II, but I cannot know what it is like to walk into battle. I’m the father of two young girls, but I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a child,” he said. “These are things I cannot know, but I do know this: I am humbled to be the commander-in-chief of the finest fighting force in the history of the world.”

Mr. Obama asked that Americans “pause in national unity” at 3 p.m. to offer a prayer, ring a bell or say a silent “thank you” to service members.

He also asked all Americans to “commit to give something back to this nation, something lasting in their memory, to affirm in our own lives and advance around the world those enduring ideals of justice, equality and opportunity for which they and so many generations of Americans have given that last full measure of devotion.”

Mr. Obama pointedly mentioned both the Union and Confederacy, and sent wreaths both to a monument for Confederate soldiers and to a memorial honoring the 200,000 black soldiers killed fighting for the Union during the Civil War.

Hundreds of visitors gathered at Arlington within sight of the Tomb at the base of the USS Maine, some waiting at least three hours to catch a glimpse of the new commander-in-chief.

Brian Weisel, 54 and a retired National Guardsman, said the president’s limousine would sometimes park in front of the spot where a crowd gathers every year, letting the commander-in-chief wave to the crowd. Not this time, however. The president’s car this time went on the opposite leg of a Y-shaped road, where his path to the tomb was blocked by legions of security vans and police vehicles.

“That was disappointing. I sat here for two hours just so I could get a wave,” Mr. Weisel said. “You never know where the entrance route is sometimes. Sometimes, he comes where we all can see him. Other times, he goes to the other entrance. I guess they decided the latter this time.”

Sgt. Jeremy Keyshawn, 25, a three-year veteran of the 101st Airborne Division who has served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, was also disappointed, though he looked on the bright side.

“This is the first time I got a chance to see my president in person. It’s a real honor to be here on Memorial Day,” he said, adding that “a lot of my friends are still serving overseas, so I feel a little blessed.”

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