President Obama's Memorial Day Speech

In his speech today, President Obama called members of the armed forces the "best of America." Talk Of The Nation listeners emailed their remembrances of loved ones lost to war.

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By longstanding tradition, the commander-in-chief marks Memorial Day with a visit to Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Presidential aides deliver wreaths at several other memorials, including another at Arlington for the Confederate war dead. And on his first Memorial Day as president, Barack Obama extended that honor to the estimated 200,000 African-Americans who died in the Civil War and sent a wreath to the African-American Civil War Memorial here in Washington, D.C.

In a moment, we'll hear the president's remarks at Arlington, and we want to know who you remember this Memorial Day.

We got this email from Jane in Blacksburg in Virginia. In World War II, Charles Vance(ph) served in the 82nd Airborne Division and came home to marry my mom in North Carolina.

My parents were lovely, but their marriage and their own mental health were impaired by my father's haunting memories. They drank and smoke themselves to death and never knew their stunning grandchildren. Let our children carry the honor of the veterans and let our stories bridge to soldiers our children never got to meet.

If you'd like to remember someone this Memorial Day, send us an email. Talk@npr.org is the address. Or you can leave your remembrance on our Web site. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And now, earlier today, President Obama at Arlington National Cemetery.

President BARACK OBAMA: Here lie presidents and privates, Supreme Court justices and slaves, generals familiar to history, and unknown soldiers known only to God.

A few moments ago, I laid a wreath at their tomb to pay tribute to all who have given their lives for this country. As a nation, we have gathered here to repeat this ritual in moments of peace, when we pay our respects to the fallen and give thanks for their sacrifice. And we've gathered here in moments of war, when the somber notes of Taps echo through the trees and fresh grief lingers in the air.

Today is one of those moments, 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.

Old soldiers are pulling themselves a little straighter to salute brothers lost a long time ago. Children are running their fingers over colorful ribbons that they know signify something of great consequence, even if they don't know exactly why. Mothers are rereading final letters home, clutching photos of smiling sons or daughters, as youthful and vibrant as they always will be.

They and we are 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.

Those who rest in these fields fought in every American war. They overthrew an empire and gave birth to revolution. 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.

Their stories are the American story. More than seven generations of them are chronicled here at Arlington. They're etched into stone, recounted by family and friends, and silently observed by the mighty oaks that have stood over burial after burial.

To walk these grounds, then, is to walk through that history. Not far from here, appropriately just across a bridge connecting Lincoln to Lee, Union and Confederate soldiers share the same land in perpetuity.

Just down the sweeping hill behind me rests those we lost in World War II, fresh-faced GIs who rose to the moment by unleashing a fury that saved the world. Next week, I'll visit Normandy, the place where our fate hung on an operation unlike any ever attempted, where it will be my tremendous honor to address some of the brave men who stormed those beaches 65 years ago.

Tucked in a quiet corner to our north are thousands of those we lost in Vietnam. We know for many the casualties of that war endure. Right now, there are veterans suffering and families tracing their fingers over black granite not two miles from here. They are why we pledge anew to remember their service and revere their sacrifice and honor them as they deserve.

This cemetery is in and of itself a testament to the price our nation has paid for freedom. A quarter of a million marble headstones dot these rolling hills in perfect military order, worthy of the dignity of those who rest here. It can seem overwhelming. But for the families of the fallen, just one stone stands out, one stone that requires no map to find.

Today, some of those stones are found at the bottom of this hill in Section 60, where the fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan rest. The wounds of war are fresh in Section 60. A steady stream of visitors leaves reminders of life, photos, teddy bears, favorite magazines. Friends place small stones as a sign they've stopped by. Combat units leave bottles of beer or stamp cigarettes into the ground as a salute to those they rode in battle with. Perfect strangers visit in their free time, compelled to tend to these heroes, to leave flowers, to read poetry, to make sure they don't get lonely.

If the fallen could speak to us, what would they say? Would they console us? Perhaps they might say that while they could not know they'd be called upon to storm a beach through a hail of gunfire, they were willing to give up everything for the defense of our freedom. That while they could not know they'd be called upon to jump into the mountains of Afghanistan and seek an elusive enemy, they were willing to sacrifice all for their country. That while they couldn't possibly know they would be called to leave this world for another, they were willing to take that chance to save the lives of their brothers and sisters in arms.

What is thing, this sense of duty? What tugs at a person until he or she says, send me? Why, in an age when so many have acted only in pursuit of the narrowest self-interest, have the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of this generation volunteered all that they have on behalf of others? Why have they been willing to bear the heaviest burden?

Whatever it is, they felt some tug. They answered a call. They said, I'll go. That is why they are the best of America. That is what separates them from those who have not served in uniform, their extraordinary willingness to risk their lives for people they never met.

My grandfather served in Patton's Army in World War II. But I cannot know what it is like to walk into battle. 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. But I do know this, I am humbled to be the commander-in-chief of the finest fighting force in the history of the world.

I know that there is nothing…

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: I know that there is nothing I will not do to keep our country safe, even if 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. And that's why as long as I am president, I will only send our troops into harm's way when it is absolutely necessary, and I will always provide them with the equipment and support they need to get the job done.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: I know that military families sacrifice more than we can understand, and feel an absence greater than we can comprehend. And that's why Michelle and I are committed to easing their burden. And I know what a grateful nation owes to those who serve under its proud flag. 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.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: With each death, we are heartbroken. With each death, we grow more determined. This bustling graveyard can be a restless place for the living, where solace sometimes comes only from meeting others who know similar grief. But it 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.

So on this day of silent remembrance and solemn prayer I ask all Americans, wherever you are, whoever you're with, whatever you're doing, to pause in national unity at 3:00 this afternoon. I ask you to ring a bell, or offer a prayer, say a silent thank you. And commit to give something back to this nation, something lasting in their memory. To affirm in our own lives and advance around the world those enduring ideals of justice, equality, and opportunity for which they and so many generations of Americans have given that last full measure of devotion.

God bless you, God bless the fallen, and God bless the United States of America.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: President Obama, earlier today at Arlington National Cemetery.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here are some of emails that we've received. We asked you to write and tell us who you remember on this Memorial Day.

This from Mike(ph). He describes himself as a former U.S. Army captain. I remember Lieutenant Craig Fielding(ph), U.S. Army Infantry, who stepped on a booby trapped explosive in Vietnam on Good Friday evening, March 27th, 1969. Craig was on his second tour in Vietnam and was about 20 feet from me when this unfortunate incident happened. Per his wishes, I visited the LDS temple near Honolulu to remember him in prayer later that year while on R&R with my wife -there, but for the grace of God.

I'd like to remember my dad, James(ph), today. He was a Marine and I never even knew it until his death, nor where he served, for that matter. Recently, to honor his memory, I had my last name changed to hyphenate as Nickels-Brithe(ph), so he may never be forgotten. That, from Marie(ph).

And this from Kaitlin(ph). Remembering Bert Middlemiss(ph), who was a World War II vet in the Pacific Theater and died this year.

We got this from Marilyn(ph) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I remember my uncle, Cleatus Masterson(ph), who served in the Navy for 30 years. My uncle was decorated with more than 100 medals for his service in the Pacific Arena, and most notably at Pearl Harbor. He was quite the card player and enjoyed an appropriate amount of whisky on occasion. He told stories in the most articulate, professional Navy way.

To hear the stories was to be there with him. But if you watched his eyes closely, one could see the price he paid for our freedom. He helped many people in his life in various other ways, but he helped me, most of all, by his courage and by his example.

In memory of Ambassador David Everett(ph) - this from Mark(ph). My father served our country from World War II to the fall of the Berlin Wall. His linguistic gifts, his love of history and travel and dedication to America served him and his country well for nearly 60 years.

And we have this from Emily(ph) in Minneapolis. I am remembering my cousin, Fred(ph), who is in training for his first tour in Afghanistan. Also, my grandfather-in-law, Ted Johnson(ph), part of the Devil's Brigade, who passed away earlier this year. One of the very brave and the very compassionate. My sincerest thoughts and prayers are with them today.

And by the way, if you'd like to leave a remembrance, you can go to our Web site at npr.org click on TALK OF THE NATION.

This from Camille(ph) in Tallahassee. Remembering Steve Rushing(ph), a true pacifist, who rather than cause his father shame, volunteered for Vietnam, became a platoon leader and was killed protecting his troops after only two months in the field. Steve was an honors college senior headed for grad school and could've received a deferral. But he chose to serve even though he opposed the war. He was my dear friend, and I will always love and remember his courage and his sense of duty.

We also have this from Janice(ph) in Clarkdale, Arizona. I would like to remember Ned Russell(ph), who just died. He was a survivor of Iwo Jima Gabba Pi Apache tribal chairman who worked at Washington, D.C. in the BIA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He came from humble beginnings in Arizona to be larger than life to his family, his tribe and to his nation. We love him, and we will miss him. That, from Janice in Clarksdale, Arizona, as I said.

From Eugene(ph), please if you would give honor to the memory of Marvin G. Shields, the fist Seabee to be killed at Dong Xoai, Republic of Vietnam, 10 September 1965. That from Eugene.

From Harry(ph) in Denver, I would like to remember my father today. He gave 30 years of his life to the nation in the Army. He fought in three wars, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He was so proud to serve the United States, and I am proud to be his son.

On Memorial Day, writes Cynthia(ph), in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. On Memorial Day, I remember my grandfather, Harry Trapp(ph), who served in France in the U.S. Army's Rainbow Division in World War I. Granddaddy was gassed twice and was awarded a Purple Heart. He was so happy to get out of the Army that he jumped off the train and went AWOL as it passed by his home place in Fairfield County, South Carolina. He was discharged honorably and his legacy to our family is that we are all vehement pacifists. Granddaddy served as a soldier because he had to. He learned from experience that war is hell.

Sandy(ph) writes, my grandpa, Charles Davis(ph), fought in World War I, the war to end all wars. Robert McAvoy(ph), my dad and uncles fought in World War II. My husband, Lowell Harpin(ph), Marine James Bandie(ph), my brother-in-law, fought in Vietnam. May the true end of all wars come before my son and grandson also must fight.

We don't have time to read all of the emails that we received. Again, you can go to our Web site and leave your remembrance there. That's an npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

On behalf of one of our producers, Susan Lund, we want to remember her uncle, Second Lieutenant Ronald F. Ward, lost in World War II.

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