Image: Bush 
Jonathan Ernst  /  Reuters
President Bush, left, stands at attention after placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns during Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on Monday.
updated 5/26/2008 1:35:30 PM ET 2008-05-26T17:35:30

President Bush paid tribute Monday to America's fighting men and women who died in battle, saying national leaders must have "the courage and character to follow their lead" in preserving peace and freedom.

"On this Memorial Day, I stand before you as the commander in chief and try to tell you how proud I am," Bush told an audience of military figures, veterans and their families at Arlington National Cemetery. Of the men and women buried in the hallowed cemetery, he said, "They're an awesome bunch of people and the United States is blessed to have such citizens."

That provoked a standing ovation from the crowd in a marble amphitheater where Bush spoke. "Whoo-hoo!" shouted one woman, who couldn't contain her enthusiasm.

Bush and his wife, Laura, traveled from the White House across the Potomac River to the rolling hillsides of Arlington. Along the way, one man stood with a sign that said: "Bring our troops home." But, otherwise, the presidential motorcade on a sparkling clear spring day was warmly greeted at the cemetery entrance by scores of people, including two men in hats, shirts and shorts made out of American flag material. Others visited gravesites where each white tombstone was marked with a tiny American flag.

"From faraway lands, they were returned to cemeteries like this one where broken hearts received their broken bodies," Bush said. "They found peace beneath the white headstones in the land they fought to defend. It is a solemn reminder of the cost of freedom that the number of headstones in a place such as this grows with every new Memorial Day."

He eulogized all U.S. troops who have died in service to the nation, but particularly those who lost their lives this past year.

He singled out Army Spc. Ronald Tucker of Fountain, Colo., who died less than a month ago in Iraq in a bomb attack that occurred as he returned from helping build a soccer field for Iraqi children. The president also spoke of two Navy SEALs, Nathan Hardy of Durham, N.H., and Michael Koch of State College, Pa., who often headed into battle wearing American flags on their chests under their uniforms. The two died Feb. 4 in Iraq and are buried side-by-side at Arlington.

Video: Bush salutes troops His Memorial Day outing came with the war in Iraq now in its sixth year and a day after Bush welcomed to the White House members of the Rolling Thunder motorcycling group, who gave him a cowhide vest jacket and made him an honorary member of their organization.

"I am humbled by those who have made the ultimate sacrifice that allow a free civilization to endure and flourish," Bush said. "It only remains for us, the heirs of their legacy, to have the courage and the character to follow their lead and to preserve America as the greatest nation on Earth and the last, best hope for mankind."

Bush's motorcade drove out of the cemetery as cannon fire left gray smoke settling over the tombstones.

After returning to the White House, Bush met in the Oval Office with five NCAA head football coaches, who recently returned from a seven-day visit to military bases in the Middle East to boost troop morale. The head coaches, who coached flag football games, were: Mark Richt from the University of Georgia; Randy Shannon, University of Miami; Jack Siedlecki, Yale University; Tommy Tuberville, Auburn University; and Charlie Weis, University of Notre Dame.

The coaches visited military personnel in Germany, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, and aboard the U.S.S. Nassau on a trip coordinated by the Defense Department.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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