Thursday, November 12, 2009

President Obama visited Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday as part of Veterans Day events across the country honoring U.S. service members who have sacrificed to preserve America’s freedom.

“We honor your service. We are forever grateful,” Mr. Obama said while standing in a cold drizzle with the cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknowns in the background. “To our veterans, to the fallen and to their families - there is no tribute, no commemoration, no praise that can truly match the magnitude of your service and your sacrifice.”

The president, dressed in a dark suit and overcoat, also participated in the traditional wreath-laying ceremony at the cemetery in Arlington, across the Potomac River from Washington.

The president and first lady Michelle Obama began the day by hosting a Veterans Day breakfast in the East Room of the White House.

The Obamas joined Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and wife Jill, whose son Beau recently returned from Iraq, at the cemetery. The first couple concluded their visit by going to a section of the cemetery reserved for those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While Memorial Day commemorates those military members who are deceased, Veterans Day provides an opportunity to thank America’s 23 million living veterans for their service.

The Bidens later hosted a lunch at the Naval Observatory for veterans, active duty service members and their families, and Mrs. Obama spoke at an event at George Washington University, where she hailed military members’ commitment to service: “They don’t just want to serve for a certain number of years of deployment - they want to make their entire life a tour of duty.”

A survey released Wednesday by Civic Enterprises showed that 90 percent of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans want to continue to serve their communities in some capacity.

“Veterans Day is a time to renew our national resolve to care for those who have borne the battle,” Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki said in his holiday proclamation. “Our character as a country is revealed through the honor we accord them and measured by the respect with which we care for them.”

The first Veterans Day proclamation was issued in 1954 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower for the nation to pay homage to veterans of all wars. Until then, Nov. 11 had been celebrated as Armistice Day, marking the 1918 signing of the World War I armistice in Compiegne, France.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Coast Guard Memorial in Arlington National Ceremony.

Ms. Napolitano acknowledged the recent “tragic events” at Fort Hood in Texas, where an Army officer is suspected of killing 13 people and wounding 29 others, mostly other soldiers. The rampage “reminds us of the tremendous sacrifice those in uniform make every day for our nation.”

“Today we pay our deepest respect to the courageous men and women who have served the U.S. armed forces and who currently risk their lives at home and abroad,” Ms. Napolitano said.

The national holiday also was an opportunity for Americans across the country to visit the iconic Washington memorials honoring millions of U.S. military veterans, including the National World War II Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall.

New York’s Veterans Day ceremony, starting with a wreath-laying at Madison Square Park’s World War I monument, honored the Navajo Code Talkers unit as special guests. During World War II, these Marines developed a code based on the Navajo language, which was indecipherable to Japanese code breakers.

Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill used the day off to return to their home states to honor veterans. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, returned to San Francisco to dedicate an overlook to the San Francisco National Cemetery, in which 30,000 Americans are buried.

Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Democrat, held a hearing at Constitution Center in Philadelphia with veterans to explore the problems of unemployment and homelessness; while lawmakers held a separate hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to focus solely on homelessness.

“To me, the crisis we face is no less than a national disgrace represented by the haunting image of 131,000 veterans on the streets of America on any given night. … American heroes huddled over a heating grate in the shadow of the Washington Monument or curled up on a bench by the war memorials on the Mall in Washington or trying to find shelter in cities across America,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat.

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