On Memorial Day, Obama reminds Americans of service members' sacrifice

On this sunny and mild Memorial Day, President Obama told a crowd gathered at Arlington National Cemetery, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., that as most Americans "are not directly touched by war," they may not "fully see or grasp sacrifice."

"Our troops and our military families understand this, and they mentioned to me their concern about whether the country fully appreciates what's happening," Mr. Obama said.

"Today we remember their service. Today, just steps from where these brave Americans lie in eternal peace, we declare as a proud and grateful nation that their sacrifice will never be forgotten," he said.

"On this day, we remember our sacred obligation to those who laid down their lives so we could live ours to finish the job these men and women started by keeping our promise to those who wear America's uniform, to give our troops the resources they need and to keep faith with our veterans and their families, now and always, to never stop searching for those who've gone missing or -- or held as prisoners of war, but on a more basic level, every American can do something even simple," Mr. Obama continued.

"As we go about our daily lives, we must remember that our countrymen are still serving, still fighting, still putting their lives on the line for all of us."

In his remarks, the president also took the opportunity to talk about the progress he's made in winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Now, last Memorial Day, I stood here and spoke about for the first time in nine years Americans were no longer fighting and dying in Iraq. Today, a transition is under way in Afghanistan, and our troops are coming home," he said. "Fewer Americans are making the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan, and that's progress for which we are profoundly grateful. And this time next year, we will mark the final Memorial Day of our war in Afghanistan."

"But even as we turn a page on a decade of conflict, even as we look forward, let us never forget as we gather here today that our nation is still at war," he added.

Prior to his speech, the president laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama hosted a breakfast at the White House with "Gold Star" families of service members who have been killed.

This is the president's fourth Memorial Day wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington during his presidency; in 2010, he was in Chicago and Vice President Joe Biden participated in his stead.

While no president from FDR through Richard Nixon attended the ceremony, over the past few decades it has been a regular event for presidents, but not necessarily a mandatory one.

In 2007, then-President George W. Bush spent Memorial Day in Texas while Vice President Dick Cheney attended the Arlington ceremony. Bush did attend the Arlington event seven out of his eight years in office.

Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush, a World War II veteran, did not participate in the wreath-laying ceremony at all during his presidency. Neither did former President Jimmy Carter, a graduate of the Naval Academy who served stateside during the Korean War.  Former President Ronald Reagan, an Army veteran, attended the Memorial Day wreath-laying ceremony three out of his eight years in office.

Among recent presidents, former President Bill Clinton is the only one with perfect attendance, going every year during his two terms.

  • Steve Chaggaris

    Steve Chaggaris is CBS News' senior political editor.