Obama pays Memorial Day tribute to service members

WATCH ABOVE: Obama lays wreath to honour fallen service members in Arlington, VA

ARLINGTON, Va. – U.S. President Barack Obama paid tribute Monday to Americans who died in battle, saying their fellow citizens must “never stop trying to fully repay them” for their sacrifice and noting this is first Memorial Day in 14 years without U.S. forces involved in a major ground war.

Speaking under sunny skies to some 5,000 people on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, Obama called the burial place “more than a final resting place for fallen heroes.”

“It is a reflection of America itself. A reflection of our history, the wars we’ve waged for democracy, the peace we’ve laid to preserve it,” he said. “It is a reflection of our diversity, of people from different races and creeds who fought for the ideals that bind us as one nation.”

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His appearance at the national cemetery is an annual rite for presidents. It came with the number of troops stationed in Afghanistan reduced to about 10,000, from a peak of over 100,000.

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Monday’s tribute also took place against a backdrop of an increasingly complex U.S. effort to help Iraq defeat a surging Islamic State extremist group that has been gaining momentum in recent days, capturing Ramadi there and taking Palmyra in neighbouring Syria.

Obama said the remaining troops should be removed from Afghanistan by the end of the year, but made no reference to America’s participation with others in the effort to beat back the Islamic State.

“We honour the more than 2,200 patriots who made the sacrifice in Afghanistan,” Obama said. Earlier, troops who are still stationed in that war-worn country paused for a moment of silence in honour of those who lost their lives there.

The Arlington observance was among a number of Memorial Day events across the country featuring parades, picnics and tributes.

Obama had a private breakfast at the White House on Monday morning with representatives of veteran and military family service organizations, along with family members of veterans. A parade was set for downtown Washington in the afternoon.

“Most Americans don’t fully see, don’t fully understand, the sacrifices of the 1 per cent of the Americans who serve in this all-volunteer force,” Obama said in his speech.

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Whenever he meets with their families, “I see that their hearts are still broken, but still full of love,” he said. “In the face of unspeakable loss, they represent the best of who we are.”

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