President Obama Gives His First Memorial Day Address as Commander in Chief

Members of the military are honored at Arlington Cemetery and around the rest of the Washington region during Memorial Day weekend.
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Jason Dudley didn't make it into the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery yesterday, where a standing-room-only audience heard President Obama pay tribute to the nation's fallen in his first Memorial Day address as commander in chief.

But Dudley, 37, the son of a Vietnam veteran from Texarkana, Tex., said the words resonated just as powerfully from where he stood.

"I thought it was beautiful and eloquent," he said. "He painted a beautiful picture."

On a warm morning under overcast skies, with just a hint of a breeze wafting through the American flags hanging between the marble columns, Obama saluted those he called "the best of America."

"Here lie presidents and privates, Supreme Court justices and slaves, generals familiar to history and unknown soldiers known only to God," he said.

Obama gave a brief verbal tour of the cemetery where a quarter-million marble headstones dot the rolling hills. A place that can seem overwhelming, he said.

"But for the families of the fallen, just one stone stands out -- one stone that requires no map to find."

Vietnam veterans lay to the north, World War II GIs just down the sweeping hill behind him, he said. And then there is Section 60, where those from Iraq and Afghanistan rest and "the wounds of war are fresh."

"If the fallen could speak to us, what would they say? Would they console us?" Obama asked. "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 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."

Obama, who began his cemetery visit by laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, spoke against the backdrop of two wars and criticism over a series of recent national security decisions, including declassification of Justice Department memos on severe interrogation methods, maintaining Bush-era military tribunals and withholding photos allegedly depicting U.S. soldiers abusing detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That was all set aside as the president expressed special gratitude to those currently serving.

"What is this thing, this sense of duty? What tugs at a person until he or she says, 'Send me'?" Obama asked. "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?"

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