President Barack Obama led the nation in commemorating Memorial Day, declaring the United States has reached "a pivotal moment" in Afghanistan with the end of war approaching by year's end.
Obama, who returned just hours earlier from a surprise visit with U.S. troops at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, paid tribute to those lost in battle there and elsewhere over history. He called them "patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice" for their country. Obama said that "many of us will never know" the courage and sacrifice of parents and loved ones across America who have lost a child, spouse, brother, sister or friend in war.
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And he made a fleeting reference to the widening scandal involving reports of poor performance by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is facing allegations of delayed treatments, and even deaths in Arizona. Obama said the country owes it to its veterans the care they need.
Closing his brief remarks, he said, "May God Bless the fallen and all those who have served and watch over their families."
The president was joined by first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, at the solemn ceremony across the Potomac River from White House on the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
The remembrance was for the war heroes of yesteryear as well as servicemen and women stationed around the world. It was carried out in idyllic weather under cloudless skies and a brilliant sunshine. The national observance was to be matched by parades, picnics and speeches across the country.
Obama appeared at the cemetery's amphitheater to speak after carrying out the traditional presidential wreath-laying, surrounded there by troops in formal dress and hearing the playing of Taps.
Preceding Obama to the microphone, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, himself a military veteran, noted this year's remembrance came with the approaching 70th anniversary of America's D-Day landing in Normandy, France. And Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said "America's sons and daughters are still out there today on the frontiers of our common defense."
The ceremony capped a weekend of often painful remembrance for many families across the nation.
The U.S. Marine Corps' chaplain, speaking to a congregation that has tied gold ribbons on the church's fence in honor of fallen soldiers since the Iraq War began, lauded the sacrifice of veterans around the world as President Barack Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan for Memorial Day.
"What they have done has allowed us to be here," Rear Admiral Margaret Kibben told the roughly 200 worshippers Sunday at the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, including active duty servicemen and women in town for the annual Fleet Week celebration.
Memorial Day, she said, was a time to remind ourselves of the meaning of sacrifice and to put personal struggles and difficulties in perspective.
Across the nation, citizens were marking Memorial Day with somber ceremonies, flag planting at cemeteries, parades and even barbecues - an American pastime that Petty Officer 1st Class Brian McNeal said should be enjoyed this weekend.
"I'm in the service so that they can enjoy that," said McNeal, 39, who is stationed in Suffolk, Virginia, and is in town for Fleet Week. "They made the sacrifice so everyday citizens don't have to worry about the evils of the world."
Thousands of memorial ribbons are tied on the storied church's fence. There are gold ribbons for service members killed in Afghanistan, green ribbons representing prayers for peace and blue ribbons for the people of Afghanistan.
Obama visited Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan Sunday to speak with troops and visit soldiers being treated at a base hospital. At least 2,181 members of the U.S. military have died during the nearly 13-year Afghan war and thousands more have been wounded.
Obama has directed all government agencies in the United States to fly their flags at half-staff on Monday in observance of Memorial Day.
On Saturday, Democratic congresswoman Tammy Duckworth served as grand marshal of Chicago's Memorial Day Parade and struggled to hold back tears during a wreath-laying ceremony to honor fallen soldiers. She lost her legs and partial use of an arm when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the Black Hawk helicopter she was piloting in Iraq in 2004.
More than 300 Junior ROTC students from Chicago Military Academy at Bronzeville marched in the city's parade. Afterward, still dressed in their uniforms, they chatted, bantered and ordered ice cream from a vendor's truck while waiting for a bus that would take them back home.
Their instructor, 1st Sgt. Stephen Roberts, an Army veteran, said the students practice all year to march in the parade.
"They enjoy it a lot," Roberts said. "We tell them about it at the beginning of the year. Our rifle, our drum teams, our flags, they practice every day. They come in on their own accord. They do their own practices. It means a lot to them. They're very proud to do this."
In Massachusetts, Boston Marathon survivor Jeff Bauman and his rescuer, Carlos Arredondo, helped plant tens of thousands of flags Saturday at a cemetery to honor soldiers.
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