Yesterday President Obama observed Memorial Day in the tradition of sitting U.S. presidents, by placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery just outside Washington, D.C. Before the ceremony, a number of university professors petitioned the White House, urging Obama “to end a longstanding practice of sending a wreath to a monument to Confederate soldiers on the cemetery grounds.” Despite their call to “break this chain of racism,” Obama continued the Confederate monument wreath-laying tradition. But he may have started a new one, sending a second wreath to the African American Civil War Memorial honoring more than 200,000 blacks who fought for the North.
Speaking before more than 4,000 veterans and family members at the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater, Obama paid tribute to the nation’s fallen in his first Memorial Day address as commander-in-chief. “I cannot know what it is like to walk into battle,” he said. “I’m the father of two young girls — but I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a child. These are things I cannot know. But I do know this: I am humbled to be the commander in chief of the finest fighting force in the history of the world.” Speaking of those who chose to serve and those who made the ultimate sacrifice, Obama said, “They answered a call; they said ‘I’ll go.’ That is why they are the best of America, and that is what separates them from those of us who have not served in uniform — their extraordinary willingness to risk their lives for people they never met.”
In his weekly address, President Obama acknowledged that “we, as a nation, have failed to live up” to “the responsibility” of serving America’s veterans “as well as they serve all of us.” “We have failed to give them the support they need or pay them the respect they deserve,” he said, adding, “That is a betrayal of the sacred trust that America has with all who wear — and all who have worn — the proud uniform of our country…and that is a sacred trust I am committed to keeping as President of the United States.” Indeed, according to a recent Center for American Progress (CAP) analysis, “many men and women who have served our country…are still in need of services to improve their quality of life — before, during, and after deployments.” Almost one in five Iraq and Afghanistan vets experience symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and yet only 53 percent of those suffering from PTSD or major depression have seen a physician. Attempted suicide and substance abuse rates among veterans have skyrocketed since 2003. More than 150,000 vets were homeless on any given night in 2007, with nearly 300,000 being homeless at some point during that year. Moreover, vets make up one-third of homeless Americans, even though only one-tenth of all adults are veterans. The economic downturn has hit vets hard as well. The CAP analysis notes that “foreclosure rates in military towns were increasing at four times the national average” last year. Additionally, “more than 75 percent of veterans report ‘an inability to effectively translate their military skills to civilian terms.’”
In his address yesterday, The President reminded Americans of the servicemen and women who have fallen in the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. “A quarter of a million marble headstones dot these rolling hills in perfect military order, worthy of the dignity of those who rest here,” he said. “Today, some of those stones are found at the bottom of this hill in Section 60, where the fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan rest. The wounds of war are fresh in Section 60. A steady stream of visitors leaves reminders of life: photos, teddy bears, favorite magazines. Friends place small stones as a sign they stopped by. Combat units leave bottles of beer or stamp cigarettes into the ground as a salute to those they rode in battle with. Perfect strangers visit in their free time, compelled to tend to these heroes, to leave flowers, to read poetry — to make sure they don’t get lonely.” “[I]t doesn’t take being Commander-in-Chief to honor the fallen,” Iran and Afghanistan Veterans of America Paul Rieckhoff said yesterday, adding, “This Memorial Day, I hope you add your own words of remembrance for the brave men and women that have heroically served this nation, and perished on the battlefield. It is the duty of every American to ensure that they are never forgotten.”