WASHINGTON: Paying tribute to dead soldiers and their families, President Barack Obama said Monday that the nation had reached a “milestone” of relative peace, noting the end of the Iraq war and plans to end America’s role in the Afghan war.
“After a decade under a dark cloud of war we can see the light of a new day on the horizon,” Obama told a crowd of military families gathered at Arlington National Cemetery to commemorate Memorial Day.
Obama made his remarks after laying a wreath laden with red and white roses at the Tomb of the Unknowns, a presidential tradition on the federal holiday.
Under a bright, cloudless sky, the president was joined by first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, at the marble sarcophagus on a hill overlooking Washington.
In his remarks, the president connected the Vietnam War to the current one, honoring soldiers who stepped forward to serve “from the jungles of Vietnam to the mountains of Afghanistan.”
“They fought for a home they would never return to. They fought for buddies they would never forget,” Obama said. “They rest here side by side, row by row because each of them loved this country and what it stands for more than life itself.”
From the cemetery, he headed to the Vietnam War Memorial for a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the beginning of that war.
He pointed to Vietnam veterans as an under-appreciated and sometimes maligned group of war heroes who remained true to their nation despite an unwelcome homecoming.
“You were sometimes blamed for the misdeeds of a few,” Obama said. “You came home and were sometimes denigrated when you should have been celebrated. It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened.”
“Even though some Americans turned their backs on you, you never turned your back on America,” Obama said.
Offering a measure of closure a half-century later, the president asked the Vietnam veterans present to stand.
“Welcome home,” he said. “Welcome home. Welcome home. Welcome home. Thank you. We appreciate you. Welcome home.”
Marking Memorial Day at both the black granite wall honoring more than 58,000 soldiers who died in the Vietnam War and earlier at Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River, Obama noted that for the first time in nine years, “Americans are not fighting and dying in Iraq.”
In this election year, Obama said the nation must remain committed to providing for the families of fallen soldiers and help returning service members seeking a job, higher education or health-care benefits.
“As long as I’m president, we will make sure you and your loved ones will receive the benefits you’ve earned and the respect you deserve,” Obama said. “America will be there for you.”
Obama said sending troops into harm’s way was “the most wrenching decision that I have to make. And I can promise you I will never do so unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
As he seeks re-election, Obama has reminded audiences about the end of the war in Iraq and the move to bring all troops home from Afghanistan by 2014. And in a campaign ad released last week, he credits U.S. servicemen who helped in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Romney promises power
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, meantime, promised to maintain an American military “with no comparable power anywhere in the world.”
The presumptive GOP presidential nominee appeared with Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the party’s 2008 presidential candidate, before a crowd in San Diego estimated at 5,000 in what was billed as a Memorial Day service, not a campaign event.
But Romney nevertheless drew clear contrasts with Obama. The former Massachusetts governor warned against shrinking America’s military in Europe’s image and said the nation must have the world’s strongest military to win wars and prevent them.
The Associated Press, Chicago Tribune and New York Times contributed to this report.