ARLINGTON, Va. (CBSDC/AP) — Reflecting on the personal toll of war, President Barack Obama on Monday implored a nation in which few volunteer for the armed forces to “always remember and to be worthy of the sacrifice” of its fallen heroes.
Addressing a Memorial Day service at Arlington National Cemetery, Obama said he worries that U.S. servicemen and women — including thousands he sent to war in more than four years as commander in chief — aren’t being fully appreciated in an era in which “most Americans are not directly touched by war.”
Less than 1 percent of the population of more than 313 million people serves in the military, officials have said.
Obama said he couldn’t explain why few are touched by war, but he allowed that it could be because of the bravery and skill of the all-volunteer force, along with new technologies that make it possible to carry out missions while endangering fewer personnel. Contrast that with generations past, when Obama said millions of Americans contributed during World War II, including his grandparents, and when “just about everybody knew somebody” who served in the Vietnam War.
“As a consequence, not all Americans may always see or fully grasp the depth of sacrifice, the profound costs that are made in our name — right now, as we speak, every day,” Obama said.
He cited fears of loved ones being forgotten that he said were expressed in letters he had received from a Naval reservist recently returned from Afghanistan and from a Charlotte, N.C., woman whose two sons are Marines who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama noted that his address here last year was the first time in nine years that Americans were no longer fighting and dying in Iraq, where the war has ended. The U.S. also is ending its mission in Afghanistan, with most of the more than 60,000 troops stationed there due to come home by the end of next year.
“But even as we turn the page on a decade of conflict,” Obama said, “our nation is still at war.”
He urged Americans, as they go about their daily lives, to remember that their fellow countrymen are still serving, still fighting and still putting their lives on the line every day.
“Let it be our task, every single one of us, to honor the strength and the resolve and the love these brave Americans felt for each other and for our country,” the president said. “Let us never forget to always remember and to be worthy of the sacrifice they make in our name.”
Obama spoke at the nation’s hallowed burial ground four days after declaring in a major national security address that the U.S. has taken down the al-Qaida terrorist organization, particularly after the killing of its leader, Osama bin Laden. But terrorist threats remain, he said, cautioning the U.S. against letting its vigilance slide.
The president spoke at the amphitheater of Arlington National Cemetery on a sun-splashed morning after he placed a wreath of red, white and blue flowers at the Tomb of the Unknowns and observed a moment of silence.
In the speech, Obama reflected on the human toll of armed conflict, noting that “every loss is devastating” for the parents who lose a child, the husbands and wives who lose a partner and the children who lose a parent.
As the one who has final say on whether to send troops into combat, Obama said he feels the losses, too.
“I feel it every time I meet a wounded warrior, every time I visit Walter Reed and every time I grieve with a Gold Star family,” he said, referring to families whose loved ones were killed during military service.
He last visited wounded troops at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., in March.
Before returning to the White House, Obama stopped at the cemetery’s Section 60, the final resting place for U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, including two whose stories the president shared in his remarks.
He and first lady Michelle Obama spent more than a half hour there, walking among the white headstones and greeting and taking pictures with many of those who were at the cemetery to pay their respects.
Before departing the White House, the president and first lady held a private breakfast in the State Dining Room for Gold Star families.
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