- Associated Press - Monday, May 31, 2010

ELWOOD, Ill. (AP) — Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. hailed America’s fighting men and women Monday as the “spine of this nation,” while President Obama’s Land of Lincoln tribute got washed out by a severe thunderstorm and high winds.

Mr. Biden made the more traditional appearance at Arlington National Cemetery on Mr. Obama’s behalf, saying the country has “a sacred obligation” to make sure its servicemen and women are the best-equipped and best-supported troops in the world.

“As a nation, we pause to remember them,” Mr. Biden said. “They gave their lives fulfilling their oath to this nation and to us.”

Mr. Obama readied a similar message of gratitude for his appearance at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Illinois and had taken the podium to give the address when the skies opened up with a quintessentially Midwestern late-spring downpour — with thunder, lightning and high winds.

Under the cover of a large umbrella, he told thousands gathered before him that while “a little rain never hurt anybody,” nobody wanted “anybody struck by lightning.” He asked people to return to their cars for their safety, and he retreated briefly to an administration building on the cemetery’s grounds. The president a few minutes later boarded a pair of buses to greet military families who came for the event.

Within the hour, reporters who accompanied Mr. Obama to the cemetery in Elwood, Ill., were told the speech had been canceled. The White House had released copies of Mr. Obama’s prepared remarks in advance of his talk, but they were pulled back when the event had to be called off.

Before the storm hit and in advance of his appearance at the podium, Mr. Obama visited a section of headstones where two Marines awaited him. After laying a wreath, he bowed his head in a moment of silence, his hands tightly clasped. Then a lone bugler played Taps.

At Arlington, Mr. Biden carried out the traditional wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknowns under a brilliant sunshine.

The vice president, accompanied by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the country’s service members are “the heart and soul and, I would, say spine of this nation.” He said taking part in the annual ceremony was “the greatest honor of my public life.”

Mr. Obama’s decision to appear in Illinois rather than at the national burial grounds at Arlington was controversial, and some veterans groups criticized him for it, although he was not the first president to bypass the annual ceremonies.

Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said Arlington is the focal point of the nation’s and military’s attention on Memorial Day. “When he’s not here, it doesn’t look like he’s on the same page,” Mr. Rieckhoff said.

Mr. Rieckhoff said U.S. servicemen and women need Mr. Obama to use the bully pulpit to remind people that the holiday is not about going to the beach or barbecuing. “We think that he has an obligation to really bridge the divide between the military and the rest of the population,” Mr. Rieckhoff said.

“We appreciate that the vice president is going to be here, but it’s not the same,” he said.

Jay Agg, a spokesman for the veterans group AMVETS, said the annual ceremony at Arlington is “the ideal place for the president to observe Memorial Day. However, his choice to honor our fallen at another national cemetery as other presidents have done is entirely appropriate.”

In an e-mail, Mr. Agg accused some people of using the day “as an opportunity to score cheap political points on the backs of our veterans and in doing so dishonor them and distract from the true meaning and purpose of Memorial Day.”

Associated Press writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report.

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