Obama Joins Americans to Honor Legacy of U.S. Veterans

Vietnam Veterans Memorial
A detail of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, designed by artist and architect Maya Lin. Photographer: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama honored the legacy of war veterans today with a tribute at Arlington National Cemetery and reminded Americans that the nation is wrapping up the decade-long war in Afghanistan.

“You are the family and friends of the fallen,” Obama said to a military family audience at the Memorial Day Observance at Arlington cemetery after laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. “For the first time in nine years, Americans aren’t fighting and dying in Iraq. We are winding down the war in Afghanistan, and our troops will continue to come home.”

Before making their way across the Potomac River into Virginia, he and first lady Michelle Obama hosted a private breakfast for families who’ve lost loved ones in war.

Obama said the U.S., as it honors those who made the ultimate sacrifice, reaffirms its commitment to caring for veterans who return home, including the newest generation of soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, said in an e-mailed statement from Boston that “a lot of young Americans are risking their lives in distant battlefields today. Memorial Day is a day to give thanks to them, and to remember all of America’s soldiers who have laid down their lives to defend our country.”

The 2012 campaign is the first modern presidential election in which neither major party candidate served in the military. Romney is appearing with Senator John McCain of Arizona at the Veterans Museum and Memorial Center in San Diego.

War Casualties

About 6,400 U.S. military personnel have died in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 48,000 have been wounded, according to the Defense Department.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who spoke before the president, said Arlington National Cemetery, which is the final resting place for more than 14,000 veterans, is “a constant reminder that freedom is not free.”

In this election year, the administration is reminding voters that it has fought for increased funding for veterans’ health care and expansion of the GI Bill for education. It’s also won approval of a tax credit that encourages businesses to hire unemployed veterans.

“As long as I’m president, we will make sure you and your loved ones receive the benefits you’ve earned and the respect you deserve,” Obama said. “America will be there for you.”

Disability Cases

At the same time, the government has a backlog of thousands of disability cases, with the waiting period for action lasting a year or more, Senator Patty Murray, chairman of the Veteran Affairs Committee, said yesterday.

“It’s not acceptable,” she said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “It doesn’t meet the guidelines of the VA. It doesn’t meet what the country expects.”

The president also designated May 28 to Nov. 11 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War. He urged Americans to honor Vietnam veterans with programs, ceremonies, and activities.

This afternoon at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Obama said America honors the 58,282 soldiers who paid the ultimate price and whose names are etched into the Wall.

For those who returned, “even though some Americans turned their back on you, you never turned your back on America,” Obama said.

Veterans and Republicans

Military veterans have traditionally been strong supporters of Republican presidential candidates, although Obama is aggressively courting the constituency. McCain of Arizona, the Republican nominee in 2008 and a one-time prisoner of war, won 54 percent of the veterans vote, compared with 44 percent for Obama, according to exit polls at the time.

Veterans support Romney over Obama by 58 percent to 34 percent, according to data from an analysis of Gallup Daily tracking interviews conducted April 11 through May 24.

In a speech to several thousand at the Veterans Museum and Memorial Center in San Diego, Romney called for a strong U.S. military.

The best choice is “to commit to preserve America as the strongest military in the world, second to none, with no comparable power anywhere in the world,” Romney said. “We choose that course in America, not so that we just win wars, but so we can prevent wars because a strong America is the best deterrent to war that has ever been invented.”

Romney Fundraisers

Romney’s appearance in California came at the start of a week that will mostly be filled with fundraising for him. He’s also poised to finally win enough delegates in tomorrow’s Texas primary to secure his party’s nomination.

Before his fundraising tour this week, Romney is scheduled to make campaign appearances tomorrow in Colorado and Nevada, both crucial swing states in November’s election.

Later on Tuesday, he’s set to appear at a fundraising event at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas. He’ll be joined by billionaire Donald Trump and former Republican presidential primary rival Newt Gingrich, who will be making his first appearance with Romney since ending his White House bid May 2. Romney, 65, is also scheduled to make fundraising stops later in the week throughout California.

Separately, the president and the first lady met today with 24 women accepted into the Navy’s nuclear submarine program. It’s the first time women are being assigned to the submarine force, according to a White House statement.

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