President Reagan went to Arlington National Cemetery yesterday, eight days before his summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, to honor this nation's war dead as "the victims of a peace process that failed."
Reagan told a Veterans Day gathering of 6,000 in the cemetery's amphitheater that "a week from now and some thousands of miles away, believe me, the memory and the importance of this day will be in the forefront of my mind."
After laying the traditional wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the president said he was proud to honor the 1 million soldiers who died in the service of their country.
"All we can do is remember them and what they did and why they had to be brave for us," he said, adding, "All we can do is try to see that other young men never have to join them.
"Perhaps we can start by remembering this: that all of those who died for us and our country, were, in one way or another, victims of a peace process that failed, victims of a decision to forget certain things -- to forget, for instance, that the surest way to keep a peace going is to stay strong."
"It's important that he [Reagan] comes and says something," said James K. Holm, 36, a Vietnam veteran from Minneapolis who said he drove 24 hours to attend the ceremony. "But what can you say now?"
For the 109,000 service personnel who died during the Vietnam era, including those who died in Holm's platoon in Quang Tri and Hue, Vietnam, Holm said: "There is not much we can do, only remember, and come to things like this."
"If we didn't do this, stop and remember, it would be hard to keep track of where we're going," said 72-year-old Dallas McCormick of Washington, an Army veteran of World War II and the Korean War.
McCormick wore a uniform he said he was issued before he left for North Africa in 1942 to begin a military career that lasted 22 years, six months, 14 days and six hours. "Both sides of the Iron Curtain," he said yesterday, "were not stupid enough to start a nuclear war.
McCormick, a retired master sergeant, said he would be watching the news from the Geneva summit because "as long as we are talking, we are not fighting."
Robert A. Medairos, national commander of AmVets, told the gathering that while America may not be fighting a war, its service personnel overseas face the constant threat of being killed. "Our military bases have become a target for terrorists," he said. "American servicemen are gunned down in the streets. Our embassies come under attack."
Pvt. Mark A. Balsmeyer, an 18-year-old serviceman from Huntingburg, Ind., said after the ceremony that he agreed. He said that during his basic training "there was little talk of what to do when a truck of dynamite heads right for you, because what are who going to do? Right then, you just about know you're giving up your life."
Joseph Del Quaglio, who was awarded the Purple Heart after a rocket launched by communist troops blew off his left leg during the 1970 Cambodian invasion, walked down the granite amphitheater steps aided by a wooden cane.
The annual ceremony that takes place on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to mark the hour in 1918 that World War I ended, was "lovely," Del Quaglio said. But instead of waving the flag, he said, he had hoped the Veterans Administration would have announced it had found more money for those disabled by the war.
As the crowd left the cemetery, many paused at one of the 198,000 ivory tombstones. Some said they were heading to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall.
"When I look at the wall [of the memorial, inscribed with names of those who died in Vietnam], I feel I know all of them," said Holm. "We knew most of each other by our nicknames, so I can't tell who some of the names are on the wall, but I feel I know all of them."