Nation Remembers Veterans On Memorial Day

President Barack Obama commemorated Memorial Day and the fiftieth anniversary of the Vietnam War on Monday.

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Across the country, it's a day for parades and for politics. President Obama marked Memorial Day with visits to Arlington National Cemetery and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney also addressed veterans at an event in San Diego. NPR's Jim Zarroli tells us more.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Memorial Day is supposed to be a time when politics get set aside, but in a year like this one, it's not always easy to tell where the campaigning begins and ends.

At Arlington, President Obama laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before a large crowd of service members and he reminded the audience of what he considers one of his signal accomplishments, the end of the Iraq War after nine years.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: After a decade under the dark cloud of war, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon. Especially for those who've lost a loved one, this chapter will remain open long after the guns have fallen silent.

ZARROLI: Sending troops into harm's way, he said, was his most wrenching decision as commander-in-chief and he vowed never to do it unless absolutely necessary.

Later, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the president said it was time to show appreciation to those who had fought in that conflict and he asked Vietnam vets in the audience to stand.

OBAMA: As we say those simple words which always greet our troops when they come home from here on out, welcome home. Welcome home.

ZARROLI: Across the country in San Diego, Republican Mitt Romney told a crowd that the world is filled with danger spots like Syria and Iran. The United States can respond to these threats by doing what Europe did, he said, shrinking its military budget to pay for social services or it can commit itself to having the strongest military in the world.

MITT ROMNEY: We choose that course that America - not so that we just win wars, but so we can prevent wars because a strong America is the best deterrent to war there ever has been invented.

ZARROLI: Elsewhere in the country, the day unfolded as Memorial Day always does, with parades and remembrances.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCHING BAND)

ZARROLI: In Manhattan, a few hundred people gathered under a scorching sun at a war veterans monument on the west side. Gloria Lane(ph) showed up to remember her father, who died in Germany days before the end of World War II when she was just four.

GLORIA LANE: He's buried in the American cemetery in The Netherlands and whenever Memorial Day comes, I'm there to say thank you.

ZARROLI: Nearby, Ray Anderson watched the ceremony from a lawn chair he'd placed on a shady spot on the sidewalk. He is a Korean War veteran who saw a lot of men in his Marine platoon killed. Even though more than a half century has passed, Anderson still remembers what it was like to come home.

RAY ANDERSON: Basically, I think of the hard time it was coming back into civilian life. You know, it was years of uncertainty and restlessness. It was just, you know, a hard time.

ZARROLI: It was a theme that was echoed throughout the day - how to ease veterans' transition back to civilian life. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg spoke about finding ways to help those now returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: They have stood when others could not. They have done what others did not and they have earned - not just our respect, but our gratitude and our support, as well.

ZARROLI: The problem has taken on special urgency because of the anemic economy. The unemployment rate for veterans remains stubbornly high and, on a day when the country paused to pay tribute to those who fought its wars, finding a job may be the biggest challenge that many of those returning veterans will face.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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