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With Afghan Decision Looming, Obama Honors Veterans

November 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Just days after the deadly shooting at Fort Hood, President Barack Obama marked Veterans Day with an address at Arlington National Cemetery. Hours later, he met with military advisers to discuss a new strategy for Afghanistan. Kwame Holman reports.
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JIM LEHRER: This was Veterans Day, and many Americans paused to remember those who have served in uniform. The ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, lent special meaning to ceremonies in Washington and elsewhere.

“NewsHour” correspondent Kwame Holman has our lead story report.

KWAME HOLMAN: A cool, steady rain fell on the Washington area, as President Obama took part in traditional ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. He laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, then listened as the strains of “Taps” sounded.

From there, the dignitaries moved to the cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater, where a large crowd waited.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki.

GENERAL ERIC SHINSEKI, Secretary of Veterans Affairs: From Lexington and Concord to Antietam and Gettysburg, to the Marne River and Bastogne, Iwo Jima, the Chosin Reservoir, the Ia Drang Valley, Khe Sanh, to Fallujah and Iraq and the Shah-i-Kot Valley in Afghanistan, and countless other places, the warriors we honor today have earned the love, the respect, and the admiration of a grateful nation.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president spoke of those killed just last week on American soil at Fort Hood, Texas.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Yesterday I visited the troops at Fort Hood. We gathered in remembrance of those we recently lost. We paid tribute to the lives they led. There was something that I saw in them, something that I see in the eyes of every soldier and sailor, airman, Marine and Coast Guardsman that I have had the privilege to meet in this country and around the world, and that thing is determination.

KWAME HOLMAN: And, mindful of ongoing wars, Mr. Obama addressed military families as well.

BARACK OBAMA: To the husbands and wives back home, doing the parenting of two; to the parents who watch their sons and daughters go off to war and the children who wonder when mom and dad is coming home; to all our wounded warriors, and to the families who laid a loved one to rest. America will not let you down. We will take care of our own.

KWAME HOLMAN: When the official observances had ended, the president and first lady departed from tradition, walking amid the white marble headstones in Section 60, resting place for the most recent war dead, those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. Obama spoke with mourners there visiting the graves. The president also stopped at the grave of Army Specialist Ross McGinnis, a Medal of Honor winner. He died in Iraq in 2006, after throwing himself on a live grenade, saving the lives of four other soldiers.

In all, more than 4,300 Americans have died in Iraq since the war there began in 2003, and more than 900 have been killed fighting the Afghan war since 2001. That number grew today when military divers recovered the body of a U.S. soldier in a river in Western Afghanistan. He disappeared last week.

Near Kabul, American and coalition forces marked their losses and continued challenge with their own Veterans Day ceremony.

MAJ. GEN. RICHARD FORMICA, Combined Security Transition Command in Afghanistan: We pause today as a coalition command, just as our nations will pause at home to remember those who have served, to honor their service and their many sacrifices. Today, we also acknowledge those currently serving here in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and around the world.

KWAME HOLMAN: The war in Afghanistan also was at center stage later at the White House, where President Obama’s entire national security team convened to discuss strategy. It came amid reports he is close to a decision to send thousands more troops.

But there also was time today to remember heroes of the past. The New York City Veterans Day parade featured Navajo Indian code talkers of World War II. Their elite unit in the U.S. Marines played an instrumental role in defeating the Japanese at Iwo Jima and other battles in the Pacific Theater. Thirteen of the 50 surviving code talkers took part in today’s parade, for the first time.

JIM LEHRER: You can listen to 86-year old Navajo code talker Samuel Smith describe his experiences in World War II. That’s on our Web site, NewsHour.PBS.org.