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Americans honor sacrifice of fallen servicemembers at Memorial Day

May 26, 2014 at 6:47 PM EDT
On Memorial Day, Americans across the country paused to honor men and women who fought and died in war. President Obama laid a wreath at the tomb of the unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery after a surprise weekend trip to Afghanistan. Remembrances come as the U.S. prepares to withdraw most of its forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Judy Woodruff reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: On this Memorial Day, we remember those who served, and died, fighting for this country with a look at how Americans celebrated the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform.

From Minot, North Dakota, where war veterans scattered flower petals into a river to remember those who died at sea, to a memorial parade on the neighborhood streets of this Chicago suburb, to the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia, Americans around the U.S. today honored the men and women who fought and died for their country.

President Obama was back on American soil this morning, after making a surprise weekend trip to visit service members in Afghanistan. At a rally at Bagram Airfield, he thanked some of the almost 33,000 American troops stationed there.

And, today, under bright sunny skies, the president crossed the Potomac River to Arlington National Cemetery, along with the first lady, Vice President Biden and his wife, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

In a solemn, time-honored tradition, the president laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. He then spoke before the crowd gathered at the cemetery’s amphitheater, leading the nation in commemorating its war dead.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our hearts ache in their absence. But our hearts are also full, full in knowing that their legacy shines bright in the people that they loved the most. Through almost unimaginable loss, these families of the fallen have tapped a courage and resolve that many of us will never know. And we draw comfort and strength from their example.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Today’s remembrances come as the U.S. prepares to withdraw most of its forces from Afghanistan by year’s end.

Decorating the graves of family members buried at Arlington National Cemetery is a Memorial Day tradition. So is picnicking there. The families of those who died fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq gather in the newest part, known as Section 60.

They are the focus of this excerpt from a documentary about the historic cemetery produced by Washington’s PBS station WETA.

It is narrated by David Churchwell.

DAVID CHURCHWELL: Away from the pomp and circumstance, families and friends gather in Section 60 to remember those they have lost.

WOMAN: It’s special to be here any day, but this is a reminder of Memorial Day really is.

WOMAN: We get to connect with the other families that have lost as well, and there is a bond that we share. It’s like no other loss, truly. It’s such a public loss. It’s just — it’s very helpful to be with the other families.

RODNEY L.T. BRIDGES: Our son is buried right here, Section 60, Kyle William Brown. He was interred here January 7, 2006. He was killed in the battle for Fallujah. He was 22 when he died.

Today is Kyle’s day. Today is Memorial Day. And this is where we are every year since Kyle was interred here. The emotions tend to be raw, especially the further you move down toward the line, because these guys were interred just recently. It definitely brings back memories.

WOMAN: He was assigned to the 775th Civil Engineer Squadron. He has deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and one time in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan.

JACK BRYANT SR.: We made a determination as a family that, every Memorial Day, we will be here at Arlington National Cemetery, is where — where he is, and that’s the best way to pay tribute to him.

For us, it will never be the same again, because we want to honor him and also all the veterans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Our hearts go out to them all.

You can watch the entire WETA Documentary, “Arlington National Cemetery,” on our Web site. Also there, you can learn about one historian’s painstaking efforts to count, catalog and map the locations of American war dead who are buried outside formal memorial cemeteries.