President Obama marks first Memorial Day in 14 years without major US war
President Barack Obama on Monday honored soldiers who died in Afghanistan, during his annual speech at Arlington national cemetery on Memorial Day. Though troops remain stationed in Afghanistan , it was the first time in 14 years that the US had celebrated the holiday while not engaged in a major ground war.
After laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Obama praised American soldiers for their “honor, courage, selflessness” in every war, from the Revolutionary war against Britain to the recently ended conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ahead of the ceremony, the administration touted this as the first Memorial Day ceremony since the end of the ground war in Afghanistan, where more than 2,200 Americans died since 2001.
“This may be the first Memorial Day since the end of our war in Afghanistan, but we are acutely aware, as we speak, of our men and women in uniform, who still stand watch, still serve and still sacrifice, around the world,” Obama said.
Nearly 10,000 troops are set to remain in Afghanistan into 2016, fulfilling what the administration describes as “non-combat roles” – such as coordinating drone strikes and training Afghan security forces.
“We’ll continue to bring them home and reduce them to embassy presence by the end of next year, but Afghanistan remains a very dangerous place,” Obama said.
He honored the last two soldiers to die in the combat mission in Afghanistan, Wyatt Martin and Ramon Morris. They died when their military vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) near Kabul in December.
Obama said Martin, 22, enlisted because he was grateful for his life in Arizona, and believed it “came with an obligation to give back, to serve”. Last summer, the president said, Martin told his sister that if he died , he would die happy.
Morris , 37, was born in Jamaica and moved to Queens, New York City as a child. “Like so many proud immigrants, he was called, compelled, to enlist in the army,” Obama said.
Obama said Morris served five tours of duty, including two in Iraq. He fell in love with a fellow reservist, with whom he had a daughter.
“These two men, these two heroes, if you saw them passing on the street, you wouldn’t have known they were brothers,” Obama said. “But under this flag, in common cause, they were bonded together to secure our liberty, to keep us safe.”
The speech came after years of claims by the administration to have created a path to the end the Afghanistan war, or indeed that it was over, followed by delays in plans for troop withdrawal.
At last year’s Memorial Day ceremony, Obama said : “By the end of this year, our war in Afghanistan will finally come to end.” At the time, about 32,000 troops were in Afghanistan.
In addition to saluting Martin and Morris on Monday, Obama honored John Dawson , the first soldier to die in “the new mission” in Afghanistan. Dawson, an army medic, was shot dead in an apparent insider attack in Jalalabad.
He also gave special recognition to the soldiers who fought in the second world war, which ended 70 years ago this year.
The defense secretary, Ash Carter, also spoke, a day after his comments to CNN about Iraqi forces being to blame for recent advances by Islamic State militants caused international disquiet.
Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, spoke first. “Tomorrow when you resume life’s daily routines, think of the families who will return home, and leave their families in this sacred place,” he said.
Arlington national cemetery holds the remains of more than 400,000 US military members and their families. President John F Kennedy and his family are also buried there.
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