ARLINGTON, Virginia — President Barack Obama saluted Americans who died in battle and made special mention on Memorial Day of the families of lost loved ones "who represent the best of who we are."
In comments at Arlington National Cemetery on Monday, Obama said most Americans don't understand the sacrifice made by the 1 percent of the population that serves in the all-volunteer Armed Forces. But when he meets with "Gold Star" families that have lost loved ones through military service, Obama said he hears "their pride through their tears."
"I see that their hearts are still broken, and yet still full of love," he said. "They do not ask for awards or honors. They do not ask for special treatment. They are unfailingly humble. In the face of unspeakable loss, they represent the best of who we are."
Obama's appearance is an annual rite for presidents at the cemetery nestled among hills overlooking the Potomac River. Before his remarks, Obama laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. He bowed his head briefly and listened with others as "Taps" was sounded.
Introducing Obama, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said: "We, your fellow Americans, lack the words to describe what you feel today because try as we may, and try as we do, we can never fully know. But we do know what your sacrifice means to us."
Obama said the markers at Arlington signify the blessings many Americans enjoy and the debt owed those who gave their lives for their country.
"It's a debt we can never fully repay," he said, "but it is a debt we will never stop trying to fully repay."
Speaking under sunny skies to some 5,000 people in an amphitheater on the hallowed grounds of the cemetery, Obama said the graveyard is "more than a final resting place of heroes."
"It is a reflection of America itself," he said, citing racial and religious diversity in the backgrounds of the men and woman who paid the ultimate sacrifice to preserve "the ideals that bind us as one nation."
He noted that Monday was the first Memorial Day in 14 years without U.S. forces engaged in a major ground war. Obama said most of the remaining troops should be removed from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
The president recognized the more than 2,200 patriots who sacrificed themselves in Afghanistan, including the final two killed before the U.S. combat mission ended late last year. He also recognized the first American killed during the "new mission" to train Afghan forces, an Army medic who died in April.
Earlier, troops stationed in that war-wracked country observed a moment of silence in honor of fallen comrades there.
Across the nation, Americans observed Memorial Day with parades, picnics and tributes that began earlier in the weekend:
—North Dakota marked the 25th anniversary of the groundbreaking for the state's Veterans Cemetery south of Mandan. Gov. Jack Dalrymple directed all state agencies to fly the U.S. and state flags at half-staff.
—In South Dakota, Gov. Dennis Daugaard asked residents to observe the president's request that Americans unite in prayer at 11 a.m. local time and that a moment of silence be observed at 3 p.m. for the National Moment of Remembrance.
—In Michigan, an ex-Navy SEAL who founded a national organization to help military and emergency service workers who have survived burns served as grand marshal of Dearborn's Memorial Day parade as the Detroit suburb joined communities around the state in marking the holiday.
—The Library of Congress has been working to build an oral history collection to capture veterans' memories of war, and the project is nearing a milestone of 100,000 records.
—In a race in Boulder, Colorado, U.S. Air Force pilot Ben Payne, a runner from Colorado Springs, ran with the names of several family members and friends who lost their lives while serving their country on a bib pinned to his back.
—With the assistance of former servicemen and -women, a Michigan State University journalism class researched and wrote a book, "100 Questions and Answers About Veterans." It's aimed at clearing up myths and misunderstandings about the military held by some civilians.
—During a baseball game at Wrigley Field between the Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs, a moment of silence was observed to honor the sacrifices of veterans.
—One holiday event took an unexpected turn when a waterspout came up on a South Florida beach, sending an inflatable bounce house airborne with three children inside. Police said the youngsters were ejected before it flew over palm trees and across four lanes of traffic and landed in a parking lot. They said the children were injured, but alert and conscious when they were taken to a hospital.
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