(CNN) — President Barack Obama gave a special salute Monday to Americans who lost their lives fighting in the Korean War, noting the upcoming 60th anniversary of the conflict’s end, and asked Americans to remember the troops’ work in Afghanistan as that war winds down.
“Over the last decade, we’ve seen the character of our country again,” the president said after laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
He delivered Memorial Day remarks the week after addressing America’s controversial counterterrorism strategies and a rash of sexual assaults in the military that he said could threaten national security.
Calling Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery “a monument to a common thread in the American character,” Obama asked the audience not to forget the “men and women who are willing to give their lives and lay down their lives” for the freedoms the nation enjoys.
A serviceman recently wrote the president to say he feared “our work in Afghanistan is fading from memory,” Obama said. He spoke of the troops who lost their lives there — among them, a humble combat medic who never boasted of the lives he saved and a Marine who did five tours of duty because he “he wanted to finish the mission” — and called the loss of every serviceman and -woman “devastating.”
“We must remember our countrymen are still serving, still fighting, putting their loves on the line for all of us,” Obama said.
Obama arrived at the cemetery amid a 21-gun salute and was met by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, cemetery Executive Director Kathryn Condon and Maj. Gen. Michael Linnington, commander of the Army’s military district of Washington.
Linnington escorted the president to the tomb, where Obama laid the wreath and observed a moment of silence before speaking at the Memorial Amphitheater.
The president, who used last year’s occasion to pledge his support for Vietnam War veterans, spoke Saturday about the “1% of the American people (who) bear the burden of our defense.”
“They are heroes, each and every one,” he said. “They gave America the most precious thing they had, the last full measure of devotion. And because they did, we are who we are today: a free and prosperous nation, the greatest in the world.”
He continued, “They risk their lives, and many give their lives, for something larger than themselves or any of us: the ideals of liberty and justice that make America a beacon of hope for the world. That’s been true throughout our history — from our earliest days, when a tiny band of revolutionaries stood up to an empire, to our 9/11 generation, which continues to serve and sacrifice today.”
Obama further urged Americans to “do more than remember”: to care for the loved ones the fallen soldiers leave behind; to ensure that veterans have adequate care, jobs and benefits; and to support military missions at home and abroad.
The speech comes at a time when the administration is dogged by controversy. While facing tough questions about alleged IRS targeting of conservative groups and his administration’s response to the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Obama also answered questions last week about the use of drones, the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention center and sexual assault in the military.
In a Thursday speech, he said drones are a necessary evil but one that must be used more judiciously as the American security situation evolves. Per Gitmo, he said he would push Congress to allow him to shut down “a facility that should never have been opened.”
On Friday, responding to a Defense Department report that cases of unwanted sexual contact had jumped 35% between 2010 and 2012, Obama said the attacks threaten the trust and discipline that is the military’s backbone.
“That’s why we have to be determined to stop these crimes. Because they have no place in the greatest military on Earth,” Obama said during remarks at the U.S. Naval Academy.