By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
May 25, 2009 - President Barack Obama today hailed U.S. military members' unselfish service and willingness to lay down their lives on behalf of their fellow citizens during the annual Memorial Day observance at Arlington National Cemetery. White House offiicials said the president returned from Camp David last night so that this morning he could have breakfast with Gold Star Families in the State Dining Room, participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, and speak at the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery.
After being introduced by Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Obama told an audience gathered inside the Memorial Amphitheater that Arlington's hallowed grounds contain the remains of, "presidents and privates, Supreme Court justices and slaves; generals familiar to history, and unknown soldiers known only to God."
The annual Memorial Day observance has been held at Arlington "in moments of peace, when we pay our respects to the fallen and give thanks for their sacrifice," Obama said, and also "in moments of war, when the somber notes of Taps echo through the trees, and fresh grief lingers in the air."
And, "today is one of those moments," the president continued, "where we pay tribute to those who forged our history, but hold closely the memory of those so recently lost. And even as we gather here this morning, all across America, people are pausing to remember, to mourn, and to pray."
Moments before he entered the cemetery's amphitheater, Obama laid a ceremonial wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, which contains the remains of unidentified soldiers from World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. There was also a crypt for a Vietnam War unknown, but genetic forensics later identified him as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie. The crypt is now empty.
More than 300,000 people are buried at Arlington Cemetery, including veterans from all the nation's wars -- the American Revolution through Iraq and Afghanistan.
Arlington's wreath-laying ceremony, Obama said, salutes "the legacies of an unbroken chain of proud men and women who served their country with honor; who waged war so that we might know peace; who braved hardship so that we might know opportunity; who paid the ultimate price so we might know freedom."
The generations of servicemembers that are buried at Arlington "fought in every American war," Obama pointed out.
"They overthrew an empire and gave birth to revolution," Obama said of Arlington's dead. "They strained to hold a young union together. They rolled back the creeping tide of tyranny, and stood post through a long twilight struggle. And they took on the terror and extremism that threatens our world's stability."
Next week, Obama will visit Normandy, France, he said, to "address some of the brave men who stormed those beaches 65 years ago" as part of the D-Day landings during World War II.
Arlington Cemetery, Obama said, is "a testament to the price our nation has paid for freedom." The thousands of marble headstones that march up and down the cemetery's hilly grounds and cover its flats, he said, are arrayed "in perfect military order, worthy of the dignity of those who rest here."
Section 60 is where the "fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan rest," Obama said. Servicemembers buried at Arlington who gave their lives during previous wars and the fallen from Afghanistan and Iraq, he said, shared a common dedication to duty and country.
"What is thing, this sense of duty?" Obama asked. And why, he continued, in today's self-indulgent times, have "soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of this generation volunteered all that they have on behalf of others" and "bear the heaviest burden?"
And, just as their predecessors, today's military members serving in Iraq and Afghanistan "felt some tug; they answered a call; they said, 'I'll go,'" Obama said.
That's why, Obama said, America's servicemembers "are the best of America, and that is what separates them from those of us who have not served in uniform -- their extraordinary willingness to risk their lives for people they never met."
Obama said his grandfather had served in Army Gen. George S. Patton's Army in World War II.
"But I cannot know what it is like to walk into battle," Obama said. "I'm the father of two young girls -- but I can't imagine what it's like to lose a child. These are things I cannot know."
Yet, Obama declared that he "is humbled" to be the commander-in-chief "of the finest fighting force in the history of the world."
As U.S. president, Obama pledged "to keep our country safe, even as I face no harder decision than sending our men and women to war -- and no moment more difficult than writing a letter to the families of the fallen."
Obama also said he'd only send troops into battle "when it is absolutely necessary, and I will always provide them with the equipment and support they need to get the job done."
Military families "sacrifice more than we can understand," Obama said, and those who've lost loved ones to war "feel an absence greater than we can comprehend."
America owes much "to those who serve under its proud flag," Obama said. "And, that's why I promise all our servicemen and women that when the guns fall silent, and you do return home, it will be to an America that is forever here for you, just as you've been there for us."
The death of a loved one who died in service of their country is a heart-breaking experience for those loved ones left behind, Obama said.
But, such a tragic event, he added, also "reminds us all the meaning of valor; it reminds us all of our own obligations to one another; it recounts that most precious aspect of our history, and tells us that we will only rise or fall together."
During his introduction of the commander-in-chief, Mullen also saluted U.S. servicemembers' sacrifices on behalf of the nation.
Memorial Day is a time for Americans to remember and honor its fallen heroes who've given the nation the gift of their ultimate sacrifice, Mullen said.
"What we do understand as it is revealed to us more fully each passing spring," Mullen said, "is how precious and very rare these gifts truly are, in and above this world."
Mullen also praised Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for their support of America's servicemembers and families.
"In every possible way, he and our First Lady make our troops and their families first; first in their daily lives, first in their thoughts, and first in their hearts," Mullen said.