WASHINGTON – President Bush paid solemn tribute Monday to America’s fallen forces, labeling the more than 3,500 U.S. troops killed in combat so far in Iraq and Afghanistan “a new generation of heroes.”
This year’s Memorial Day comes four days after Bush warned a war-weary nation that he anticipates increased American military casualties in Iraq this summer as a result of the troop buildup now under way.
The president marked the annual day of remembrance by meeting service members who received medals for distinguished service, as well as with families of several soldiers killed in battle, in the Oval Office. He then drove to Arlington National Cemetery and placed the traditional wreath of red, white and blue carnations before the Tomb of the Unknowns, bowing his head while a bugler played taps.
His wife, Laura, stood nearby with relatives of fallen troops. Behind them, thousands of small U.S. flags fluttered along the orderly rows of white tombstones.
In his remarks, Bush invoked the memory of Americans killed during the Civil War, the two world wars, Korea and Vietnam, as well as those slain in battle over the last six years. More than 368,000 are interred at the national burial ground.
“Now this hallowed ground receives a new generation of heroes, men and women who gave their lives in places such as Kabul and Kandahar, Baghdad and Ramadi,” Bush said. “Like those who came before them, they did not want war, but they answered the call when it came.”
As of Monday, at least 3,452 members of the U.S. military have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. At least 325 have died in and around Afghanistan since late 2001, when U.S. troops ousted the Taliban, according to the Defense Department.
Bush said America’s freedom came at great costs and required strong resolve and common purpose, and he indirectly addressed public criticism of the war in Iraq.
“As before in our history, we find ourselves under attack and underestimated,” he said. “Our enemies long for our retreat. They question our moral purpose. They doubt our strength of will. Yet even after five years of war, our finest citizens continue to answer our enemies with courage and confidence.”
Bush praised people who volunteer for the military. “Hundreds of thousands of patriots still raise their hands to serve their country,” he said. “Tens of thousands who have seen war on the battlefield volunteer to re-enlist.”
They “are not fatalists or cynics,” he added. “They know that one day this war will end, as all wars do. Our duty is to ensure that its outcome justifies the sacrifices made by those who fought and died in it.”
Bush sought to comfort the families of those who have died. “Nothing said today will ease your pain,” he said. “But each of you need to know that your country thanks you.”
The president spoke as violence claimed new victims in Iraq. A suicide car bomber struck a busy commercial district in central Baghdad, killing at least 21 people and damaging a major Sunni Muslim shrine. A firefight also erupted in the city after insurgents reportedly hijacked two minibuses and kidnapped their passengers.