ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — President Barack Obama on Monday saluted Americans who died in battle, saying the country must "never stop trying to fully repay them" for their sacrifices. He noted it was the first Memorial Day in 14 years without U.S. forces engaged in a major ground war.
Speaking under sunny skies to some 5,000 people in an amphitheater on the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, Obama said the graveyard is "more than a final resting place of heroes."
"It is a reflection of America itself," he said, citing racial and religious diversity in the backgrounds of the men and woman who paid the ultimate sacrifice to preserve "the ideals that bind us as one nation."
His appearance is an annual rite for presidents at the cemetery nestled among verdant hills overlooking the Potomac River.
In his remarks at Arlington National Cemetery, Obama said most of the remaining troops should be removed from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
He recognized the more than 2,200 patriots who sacrificed themselves in Afghanistan, including the final two killed before the U.S. combat mission ended late last year. He also recognized the first American killed during the "new mission" to train Afghan forces, an Army medic who died in April.
Earlier, troops stationed in that war-wracked country observed a moment of silence in honor of fallen comrades there.
Before making his remarks, Obama laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. He bowed his head briefly and listened with others to the playing of "Taps."
Obama said most Americans don't understand the sacrifice made by the 1 percent of the population that serves in the all-volunteer Armed Forces. But when he meets with "Gold Star" families that have lost loved ones through military service, Obama said he hears "their pride through their tears."
"I see that their hearts are still broken, and yet still full of love," he said. "They do not ask for awards or honors. They do not ask for special treatment. They are unfailingly humble. In the face of unspeakable loss, they represent the best of who we are."
Obama said the markers at Arlington signify the blessings many Americans enjoy.
"It's a debt we can never fully repay," he said, "but it is a debt we will never stop trying to fully repay."
Introducing Obama, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said, "We, your fellow Americans, lack the words to describe what you feel today because try as we may, and try as we do, we can never fully know. But we do know what your sacrifice means to us."
Across the nation, Americans observed Memorial Day with parades, picnics and tributes that began earlier in the weekend.
—The roar of motorcycle engines throughout the nation's capital on Sunday presaged Monday's solemn event at Arlington, as thousands of bikers saluted veterans with Rolling Thunder's "Ride for Freedom." A concert of patriotic music followed on Sunday evening. Obama held a private breakfast on Monday at the White House with representatives of veteran and military family service organizations and the national Memorial Day parade marched on Constitution Avenue.
— North Dakota marked the 25th anniversary of the groundbreaking for the state's Veterans Cemetery south of Mandan. Gov. Jack Dalrymple directed all state agencies to fly the U.S. and state flags at half-staff.
— In South Dakota, Gov. Dennis Daugaard asked residents to observe the president's request that Americans unite in prayer at 11 a.m. local time and that a moment of silence be observed at 3 p.m. for the National Moment of Remembrance.
— In Kentucky horse country, dozens of people gathered at the cemetery of the Old Friends farm to honor 11 thoroughbreds who died in the past year after being retired there. Some were racetrack winners and descendants of racing royalty, while others were also-rans or never raced at all.
— In Michigan, an ex-Navy SEAL who founded a national organization to help military and emergency service workers who have survived burns served as grand marshal of Dearborn's Memorial Day parade as the Detroit suburb joined communities around the state in marking the holiday.
— The Library of Congress has been working to build an oral history collection to capture veterans' memories of war, and the project is nearing a milestone of 100,000 records.
— In a race in Boulder, Colorado, U.S. Air Force pilot Ben Payne, a runner from Colorado Springs, ran with the names of several family members and friends who lost their lives while serving their country on a bib pinned to his back.
— With the assistance of former servicemen and -women, a Michigan State University journalism class researched and wrote a new book, "100 Questions and Answers About Veterans." The book is aimed at clearing up myths and misunderstandings about the military held by some civilians.
— During a baseball game at Wrigley Field between the Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs, a moment of silence was observed to honor the sacrifices of veterans.
—One holiday event took an unexpected turn when a waterspout uprooted an inflatable bounce house with three children inside it on a South Florida beach. Police said the youngsters were ejected before it flew over palm trees and across four lanes of traffic before landing in a parking lot. They said the children were injured, but alert and conscious when they were taken to a hospital.
Follow Darlene Superville on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/dsupervilleap