By Ben Geman - 05/28/12 04:56 PM EDT
President Obama commemorated Memorial Day with a speech marking the end of a decade of U.S. conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, honoring soldiers killed in those wars.
The president on Monday joined the top members of his defense team at Arlington National Cemetery, where he paid tribute to the more than 6,400 Americans who have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as earlier conflicts.
Obama, speaking after laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, also recognized the continuing anguish of their families.
“I cannot begin to fully understand your loss. As a father I cannot begin to imagine what is like to hear that knock on the door and learn that your worst fears have come true, but as commander in chief I can tell you that sending our troops into harm’s way is the most wrenching decision that I have to make, I can promise you I will never do so unless it is absolutely necessary, and that when we do we must give our troops a clear mission and the full support of a grateful nation,” Obama said.
The speech comes on the first Memorial Day since the formal end of the Iraq war. “This Memorial Day we mark another milestone: For the first time in nine years, Americans are not fighting and dying in Iraq,” Obama said
“We are winding down the war in Afghanistan and our troops will continue to come home,” he added. “After a decade under the dark cloud of war, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon.”
“But especially for those who have lost a loved one, this chapter will remain open long after the guns have fallen silent,” Obama said.
He also vowed efforts to ensure veterans’ benefits, an issue he had referenced in his weekly address.
“As long as I am president, we will make sure you and your loved ones will receive the benefits you have earned and the respect you deserve. America will be there for you,” Obama said Monday.
The event was also attended by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who, like Obama, acknowledged the last decade of U.S. wars.
“As we have the past 10 Memorial Days, today we still gather at a time of war. Today the American people remember the more that 6,400 heroes who have died in defense of our nation since Sept. 11. Today, we will also pay tribute to the 58,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen who died in Vietnam on this 50th anniversary of that war,” he said.
“They and their families have paid a price beyond measure, but because of their sacrifice, we are free and we are secure. We are safer because they were willing to put their lives on the line,” Panetta said.