On a cold, rain-soaked Veterans Day, President Barack Obama walked slowly through the white, stone markers at the section of Arlington National Cemetery reserved for troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the two wars he oversees as commander in chief.
Obama led the nation Wednesday in observing Veterans Day with a traditional wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington before an unannounced visit to the section reserved for those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We gather here mindful that the generation serving today already deserves a place alongside previous generations for the courage they have shown and the sacrifices that they have made," Obama said in a brief speech following the wreath-laying. Obama pledged he would do right by all veterans and families, saying: "America will not let you down."
The president spoke one day after honoring the victims of a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas. He said he was struck by the determination of the soldiers there, a quality that unites generations of American servicemen.
"To all of them _ to our veterans, to the fallen and to their families _ there is no tribute, no commemoration, no praise that can truly match the magnitude of your service and your sacrifice," he said.
The nation observed Veterans Day from remembrances at the nation's capital to a New York City parade to ceremonies in towns and cities across the nation and overseas.
At Camp Eggers in Kabul, soldiers observed a moment of silence for the more than 800 U.S. service members who have died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan since the 2001 invasion to oust the Taliban regime.
The Navajo Code Talkers were special guests at the New York parade's opening ceremony, where a wreath was laid at the World War I Eternal Light Monument in Madison Square Park. As young Marines during World War II, the Code Talkers used secret Navajo language-encrypted military terms that the Japanese were never able to crack.
As the Code Talkers were introduced, the crowd _ which included World War II veteran and actor Tony Curtis _ let out a loud cheer.
Boston College dedicated a 70-foot-long granite wall bearing the names of 209 alumni who lost their lives while serving in a war zone. Bells tolled in three sets of 11 from the college's historic Gasson Tower, symbolizing the exact time that an armistice was declared in World War I. Harvard unveiled a plaque on campus to honor the university's alumni who have received the Medal of Honor. The university has 16 winners.
Hundreds of Minnesota military veterans and family members filled a community center gymnasium in the suburbs of St. Paul to hear words of thanks from state political leaders. The ceremony drew veterans ranging from young enlisted soldiers to retired generals.
"The title of veteran deserves great respect in America," Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said. "Veteran stands for a life dedication to our nation's greatest cause _ the cause of freedom."
Among the dead in the Fort Hood shooting rampage was Pfc. Kham Xiong of St. Paul. He was mentioned in several speeches Wednesday and singled out for recognition during the invocation.
An American Red Cross event in Washington kicked off the start of a program called Holiday Mail for Heroes, which lets the public send holiday greeting cards that aren't addressed to a particular service member. Under a Defense Department policy, ordinary mail addressed to "any soldier" has to be returned to the sender. The cards will be screened, sorted and distributed to military hospitals and bases nationally and overseas as well as to veterans and military family members.
The Veterans Day observances come as Obama is on the verge of announcing a revamped war strategy in Afghanistan that is expected to include sending thousands more troops into that war zone. The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has asked the president for up to 40,000 more forces.
Before returning to the White House to discuss the Afghan strategy with his top military and national security advisers, Obama walked through Arlington's Section 60, where fallen troops from Iraq and Afghanistan are buried.
The president stopped at the grave of Spc. Ross McGinnis, a Medal of Honor recipient who was killed in Iraq, before he and first lady Michelle Obama walked through the rows of white headstones marking the fallen, the first president to do so while in office, according to cemetery staff. Under light rain, the Obamas shook hands and embraced surprised family members there to pay their respects, pausing to speak with them briefly beside their loved ones' graves.
Prior to traveling to Arlington, the president and first lady, along with Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, hosted a Veterans Day breakfast at the White House. The Bidens later hosted a lunch at the Naval Observatory for veterans, active duty servicemembers and their families.
As a military father himself, Biden said he understands the difficulty of waiting for a loved one to return from deployment. He said the country has a "sacred duty" to provide for servicemembers and their families.
The first lady said at a later event that servicemembers' commitment to their country doesn't disappear after they return to civilian life.
"For many of these folks, service is the air they breathe," she said at the event at George Washington University. "It's the reason they were put here on this earth. And they don't just want to serve for a certain number of years of deployment _ they want to make their entire life a tour of duty."
Associated Press writers Christine Simmons and Natasha Metzler in Washington, Verena Dobnik in New York, Bob Salsberg in Boston and Brian Bakst in Inver Grove Heights, Minn., contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Holiday Mail for Heroes: http://www.redcross.org/holidaymail