Thanking Veterans, Old & New

A late morning silence Tuesday marked the moment the first global war ended 85 years ago, as Americans remembered the millions who served and the thousands who perished in that conflict and those since.

With thousands of U.S. troops fighting abroad, Veterans Day 2003 honored sacrifices new and old with parades and somber ceremonies.

President Bush paused to reflect on sacrifices being made by U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The president helped set a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns on the 11th day of the 11th month of the 85th anniversary of the signing of an armistice on Nov. 11, 1918 that ended World War I.

"This nation has always gone to war reluctantly," Mr. Bush said.

Speaking in a drizzle at a coliseum draped in flags at Arlington National Cemetery, Mr. Bush cited the sacrifice of U.S. troops who died fighting for freedom in the two countries where the United States has fought during his presidency.

"The loss is terrible," Mr. Bush said Tuesday. "It is borne especially by the families left behind, but in their hurt and in their loneliness, I want these families to know: Your loved ones served in a good and just cause."

As Mr. Bush arrived at the cemetery, he was greeted by a 21-gun salute. Cannon blasts shook the cemetery and left smoke hanging over rows of tombstones in low-lying areas. He observed a moment of silence and listened to taps, his head bowed.

Later, Mr. Bush planned to talk about the high stakes in Iraq in a speech at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, an event sponsored by the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Elsewhere, Americans thanked the roughly 19 million living veterans in the United States — like Ruben Law, 105, one of a dwindling number of living World War I veterans — and recalled those who never returned, including the most recent combat death in Iraq on Sunday.

"I'm pretty rickety, but I still get along," Law said at his Carson City, Nev. home as he reminisced about his stint as an Army sergeant, hauling supplies or transporting soldiers shattered by bombs and bullets to a military hospital near the village of Allerey in eastern France. He is one of the fewer than 200 surviving U.S. veterans of the Great War, out of 4.7 million who served.

World War II veterans are marking the holiday with a sense of pride and anticipation, as they look forward to a national memorial to their sacrifice and service.

More than two years after construction began, the granite and bronze memorial on the National Mall is almost done. Project officials are planning to open it to the public in April, ahead of its formal dedication on Memorial Day weekend.

Other veterans are telling their stories to the Library of Congress, where the Veterans History Project has collected 3,900 oral history submissions.

Charles Huppert's story is one. His nightmares were so terrible after World War II, his wife hid with their toddler son in the bathroom as he fought the Gestapo police in his sleep.

"I'd scare her to death," Huppert, a former prisoner of war, said at his kitchen table recently with a tape recorder running. Once awake, "I'd yell, 'I'm OK,' and she would come out."

Donald Ritchie, a historian for the U.S. Senate who was a project adviser, said older veterans are often more willing to talk about the ugliness of war years later.

"For a long time people shy away from talking about painful subjects. They saw friends die and feel guilty almost," Ritchie said. "They have trouble bringing it up. They don't want to burden their families with stories."

Guy Stephens, 78, of Yankeetown, said he told his interviewer about the day he was liberated from a German POW camp — something the retired school principal said he had never discussed with his family.

"It's hard for POWs to talk to your family about combat or what you've experienced as a POW," Stephens said. "There's something about POWs, we never talk about things. I told him things I've never told my family…I don't know why."

Also Tuesday, Mr. Bush was signing the Fallen Patriots Tax Relief Act, which doubles the tax-free death gratuity payment given to the families of fallen soldiers from $6,000 to $12,000; and the National Cemetery Expansion Act to help establish new national cemeteries for deceased veterans in southeastern Pennsylvania and in and around Birmingham, Ala., Jacksonville and Sarasota, Fla., Bakersfield, Calif., and Greenville and Columbia, S.C.

On Veterans Day just one year ago, Mr. Bush was threatening to commit the "full force and might" of U.S. military against Saddam Hussein unless he quickly disarmed.

This year, the Bush administration finds itself empty-handed in the search for these weapons of mass destruction. And daily attacks against remaining troops have pushed the U.S. death toll to nearly 400, with more than half of those since the president declared an end to major combat operations on May 1.

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on NBC, "There is no more noble cause than the one that is being fought right now in Iraq and Afghanistan by the members of our armed forces."

About 1,500 veterans die each day. With an aging World War II generation, the Veterans Affairs Department estimates the number of veterans dying is expected to peak at 687,000 in 2006.