ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, Va., May 30, 2011 – The lessons of Memorial Day can be summed up in a few words, President Barack Obama said here today: “Brotherhood. Sacrifice. Love of country.”
The president spoke at the Memorial Amphitheatre by the Tomb of the Unknowns. It is a white marble paean to the sacrifices of generations of American service members.
In introducing the president, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said that for too many Americans, Memorial Day is just a respite from work. “But we must never forget that it is, foremost, an occasion to reflect, remember and to honor the brave men and women who have fought and died for us,” he said.
It also is a day to remember the sacrifices of military family members, “who in recent years have borne the brunt of repeated deployments, long partings and the fear of receiving the knock on the door with the worst of all possible news,” Gates said.
The secretary urged all Americans to remember that service members “deserve our recognition, our respect and our conscious gratitude. Every soldier, sailor, airman, Marine and Coast Guardsman wearing the uniform today enlisted or reenlisted knowing they would serve in time of war.”
The secretary will leave office at the end of June. “I know this will be my final opportunity to stand and speak in this hallowed place and pay tribute to the fallen,” he said. “It is up to us to be worthy of their sacrifice – in the decisions we make, the priorities we set, the support we provide to troops, veterans, and their families. For the rest of my life, I will keep these brave patriots and their loved ones in my heart and in my prayers.”
Obama spoke of the privilege it is to commemorate Memorial Day with thousands who have come to pay their respects, including service members and Gold Star families.
“To those of you who mourn the loss of a loved one today, my heart goes out to you,” he said. “This day is about you, and the fallen heroes that you loved. And it’s a day that has meaning for all Americans, including me. It’s one of my highest honors, it is my most solemn responsibility as president, to serve as commander-in-chief of one of the finest fighting forces the world has ever known.”
The responsibility carries a special weight, Obama said, adding that he sometimes receives letters in response to his condolence letters. “I received one such letter from an Army veteran named Paul Tarbox after I visited Arlington a couple of years ago,” he said. “Paul saw a photograph of me walking through Section 60, where the heroes who fell in Iraq and Afghanistan lay, by a headstone marking the final resting place of Staff Sergeant Joe Phaneuf.
“Joe, he told me, was a friend of his, one of the best men he’d ever known, the kind of guy who could have the entire barracks in laughter, who was always there to lend a hand, from being a volunteer coach to helping build a playground. It was a moving letter, and Paul closed it with a few words about the hallowed cemetery where we are gathered here today.
“He wrote, ‘The venerable warriors that slumber there knew full well the risks that are associated with military service, and felt pride in defending our democracy. The true lesson of Arlington is that each headstone is that of a patriot. Each headstone shares a story.’”
Each of them adds honor to what it means to be a soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, and Coast Guardsman, Obama said. “Each is a link in an unbroken chain that stretches back to the earliest days of our republic – and on this day, we memorialize them all.”
The nation remembers the earliest patriots who died giving America independence and those who died saving the Union, the president said. “We memorialize those who gave their lives on the battlefields of our times — from Normandy to Manila, Inchon to Khe Sanh, Baghdad to Helmand, and in jungles, deserts, and city streets around the world.
“What bonds this chain together across the generations, this chain of honor and sacrifice, is not only a common cause – our country’s cause – but also a spirit captured in a Book of Isaiah, a familiar verse, mailed to me by the Gold Star parents of Second Lieutenant Mike McGahan. ‘When I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here I am. Send me.’”
The nation and every American owes a debt to these men and women that cannot be repaid. “But we can honor their sacrifice, and we must,” he said. “We must honor it in our own lives by holding their memories close to our hearts, and heeding the example they set. And we must honor it as a nation by keeping our sacred trust with all who wear America’s uniform, and the families who love them; by never giving up the search for those who’ve gone missing under our country’s flag or are held as prisoners of war; by serving our patriots as well as they serve us — from the moment they enter the military, to the moment they leave it, to the moment they are laid to rest.”
The president spoke about two Naval Academy roommates who grew as close as brothers – Travis Manion and Brendan Looney. After graduation, Manion, a Marine, went to Iraq and Looney, a Navy SEAL, went to Korea.
“On April 29, 2007, while fighting to rescue his fellow Marines from danger, Travis was killed by a sniper,” Obama said. “Brendan did what he had to do – he kept going. He poured himself into his SEAL training, and dedicated it to the friend that he missed. He married the woman he loved. And, his tour in Korea behind him, he deployed to Afghanistan. On September 21st of last year, Brendan gave his own life, along with eight others, in a helicopter crash.
“Heartbroken, yet filled with pride, the Manions and the Looneys knew only one way to honor their sons’ friendship – they moved Travis from his cemetery in Pennsylvania and buried them side by side here at Arlington.”