At this year’s Memorial Day ceremony in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia President Barack Obama emphasized that it is historic as it is the first Memorial Day in 14 years, where American troops are not fighting a ground war, and this year marked the 70th anniversary since the end of World War II. At the Monday morning, May 25, 2015 ceremony President Obama first laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before delivering a 15-minute speech before a crowd of 5,000 in the cemetery’s amphitheater at his seventh Memorial Day as president.
In his remarks, Obama noted the historical significance of the day, recounting, “For 147 years, our nation has set aside this day to pay solemn tribute to patriots who gave their last full measure of devotion for this country that we love.” The president remembered those who fought in each of America’s wars from the Civil War, World War I, II, Korea, Vietnam, and the recent wars in “the deserts of the Middle East,” and these “heroes” who have values of “Honor … courage … selflessness.”
This year has an additional historical meaning, with Obama recalling “this year, we mark a historic anniversary — 70 years since our victory in World War II,” where “More than 16 million Americans left everything they knew to fight for our freedom. More than 400,000 gave their lives.”
President Obama pointed out why this Memorial Day is significant in recent history, “For many of us, this Memorial Day is especially meaningful. It’s the first since our war in Afghanistan came to an end. For many of us, this Memorial Day is especially meaningful; it is the first since our war in Afghanistan came to an end. Today is the first Memorial Day in 14 years that the United States is not engaged in a major ground war.” The president also expressed, “On this day, we honor the sacrifice of the thousands of American service members – men and women – who gave their lives since 9/11, including more than 2,200 American patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan.”
The president called the “hallowed ground” at Arlington Cemetery “more than the final resting place of heroes; it is a reflection of America itself. It’s a reflection of our history: the wars we’ve waged for democracy, the peace we’ve laid to preserve it. It’s a reflection of our diversity: men and women of all backgrounds, all races and creeds and circumstances and faiths, willing to defend and die for the ideals that bind us as one nation.”
Although this year marks the first year that American troops are not engaged in a ground war overseas, nearly 10,000 troops are still in Afghanistan serving in non-combat roles. The 9,800 troops in Afghanistan is far more than the 5,500 Obama previously pledged, but far less than the 100,000 that had been there at the height at the war. President Obama has kept more troops there because of the unrest and threats from extremist and terrorist groups including the Taliban and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
President Obama discussed the military’s sacrifices, and that “Most Americans don’t fully see, don’t fully understand the sacrifice made by the one percent who serve in this all-volunteer armed forces – a sacrifice that preserves the freedoms we too often take for granted. Few know that it’s like to take a bullet for a buddy, or to live with the fact that he or she took one for you. We are acutely aware, as we speak, our men and women in uniform still stand watch, still serve, still sacrifice, around the world.”
Concluding, the president gave tribute to “The Americans who rest beneath these beautiful hills, and in sacred ground across our country and around the world, they are why our nation endures. Each simple stone marker, arranged in perfect military precision, signifies the cost of our blessings. It is a debt we can never fully repay, but it is a debt we will never stop trying to fully repay.”
Also speaking at the ceremony was Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who quoted former President John F. Kennedy, who is buried at Arlington, “These quiet grounds, this cemetery and others like it all around the world, remind us with pride of our obligation and our opportunity.” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey also delivered remarks gave a message to U.S Service members, “I want you to know that you are always in our hearts.” As this year marked the 70th anniversary since World War II 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, 91 a World War II veteran was in the audience.
Memorial Day began as Decoration Day, which United States Department of Veterans Affairs recounts began “Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.” In 1971, Congress officially made the day a holiday and established it would be observed on the last Monday in May.
Remarks by the President Barack Obama on Memorial Day, May 25, 2015
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. She covers US, Canadian & Israeli politics, with a particular focus on the Obama presidency, Congress, domestic policy, and elections.