It is peaceful at Arlington National Cemetery with impeccably cared-for grounds and row after row of headstones seeming to march down to the Potomac.
It is a shrine that Americans visit each day to see and touch and be moved -- by the precise steps of the sentry at the Tomb of the Unknowns or the sight of a horse-drawn caisson taking another fallen service member to rest.
For many, the area known as Section 60 is the most poignant, if only because it is the most recent. Many killed in Iraq and Afghanistan have their final resting place there. On Memorial Day, many of those graves have flowers or drawings or stones placed atop them.
Section 60 is where President Barack Obama came to mark his final Memorial Day as commander in chief. He placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and addressed several thousand people in the Memorial Amphitheater.
Most Solemn Obligation
Obama said that he has no more solemn obligation than the decision to send service members into harm’s way. “I think about this every time I approve an operation as president -- every time, as a husband and father, that I sign a condolence letter, every time Michelle and I sit at the bedside of a wounded warrior or grieve and hug members of a Gold Star family,” he said.
He noted that less than 1 percent of Americans wear the uniform. “And so few Americans see this patriotism with their own eyes or know someone who exemplifies it, but every day there are American families who pray for the sound of a familiar voice when the phone rings or the sound of a loved one's letter or e-mail arriving,” he said. “More than one million times in our history, it didn't come. And instead, a car pulled up to the house, and there was a knock on the front door, and the sound of 'Taps' floated through a cemetery’s trees.”
It is every American’s responsibility to not forget these heroes, Obama said, and it must be done by actions, not just by words. He mentioned the presence of more than 350 participants in the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors in the audience. “For truly remembering and truly honoring these fallen Americans means being there for their parents and their spouses and their children,” he said.
Keeping Stories Alive
Americans must remember the fallen and they must hear their stories, the president said. “My fellow Americans, today and every day listen to the stories these Gold Star families and veterans have to tell,” he said. “Ask about who he or she was, why they volunteered. Hear from those who loved them about what their smile looked like and their laugh sounded like and the dreams they had for their lives.”
In the past year, more than 20 Americans have given their lives in Afghanistan. In the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, “three Americans have given their lives in combat on our behalf, and today I ask you to remember their stories as well,” he said.
The president spoke movingly about Navy Chief Petty Officer Charles Keating IV, Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin and Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, the three service members lost in the fight against ISIL.
“Our nation reveals itself not only by the people it produces, but by those it remembers,” Obama said. “We do so not just by hoisting a flag, but by lifting up our neighbors, not just by pausing in silence, but by practicing in our own lives the ideals of opportunity and liberty and equality that they fought for. We can serve others and contribute to the causes they believed in, and above all, keep their stories alive so that, one day, when he grows up and thinks of his dad, an American like David Wheeler can tell them as well the stories of the lives others gave for all of us.”