Image: President Barack Obama takes part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery
NBC News
President Barack Obama participates in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.
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updated 5/30/2011 6:47:58 PM ET 2011-05-30T22:47:58

Americans from Washington to California marked Memorial Day with parades, barbecues and somber reflection in a holiday infused with fresh meaning by the approaching 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The National Memorial Day Parade in Washington honored veterans and America's war dead but also featured special tributes to Sept. 11 first responders, victims and their families. Also fresh in the minds of parade participants and watchers was the killing less than a month ago of Osama bin Laden, who masterminded the attacks.

Elsewhere, military jets thundered through the sky above New York after a wreath-laying ceremony aboard an aircraft carrier that's been turned into a museum, while hundreds of volunteers put small flags on the 25,000 graves at a sprawling military cemetery near Las Vegas. U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan also took time out to remember fallen comrades.

Along the parade route in Washington, children sat on parents' shoulders and throngs cheered the passing high school marching bands and floats of war veterans. Special guests included Medal of Honor recipients, astronaut and Korean War veteran Buzz Aldrin and actor Gary Sinise, a veterans advocate who played Lt. Dan in the Oscar-winning film "Forrest Gump."

Story: Combat troops remember fallen comrades

Hamilton Peterson, who lost his father and stepmother when the hijacked United Airlines 93 crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pa., said the looming anniversary of the terror attacks should serve as a reminder to Americans to be vigilant.

"Obviously, bin Laden's death is a highlight of the 10th anniversary. However, we recognize that future attacks are imminent and that, absent using 9/11 as a model for how to respond, all Americans need to get involved. It can't just be the military," said Peterson, 51.

Sgt. James Patrick McMichael of the Arlington County, Va., sheriff's office was among the first responders to the Pentagon and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder about two years later. He said that even though the anniversary was dredging up painful memories, it's still critical that the public never lose memory of the attacks — especially to make sure they don't repeat themselves.

A commercial jet crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, killing 184 people at the sprawling Defense Department headquarters.

"Reliving the event is not something that I look forward to, but I don't think it should be something that's not brought up to the public," said McMichael, who attended the parade in Washington. "I don't think people should forget about what occurred."

The parade featured a Shanksville fire engine and a red, white and blue float bearing the images of the victims on miniature twin towers.

Seventeen-year-old spectator Zach Garrett recalled watching coverage of the attacks as a third-grader.

"Watching it on the TV, it was disturbing at that age," said the Alpharetta, Ga., resident who was visiting Washington with his family. "And here, 10 years later, this big parade — everybody's participating and everybody's on the sidelines cheering everybody on. There's a lot of patriotism here."

President Barack Obama participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington.

"Our nation owes a debt to its fallen heroes that we cannot ever fully repay," Obama said in a speech. "But we can honor their sacrifice, and we must."

In New York, Lynn Berat dressed her young daughters in matching red, white and blue sundresses for a the ceremony at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum on the west side of Manhattan.

"I think it's important that they understand the spirit of Memorial Day instead of just barbecuing," she said.

Hundreds gathered at Los Angeles National Cemetery, where the ceremony included the pledge of allegiance, singing of the national anthem, a flyover and a cannon salute.

U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan paused for Memorial Day services, with some praying and holding flag-raising ceremonies to recognize the more than 1,400 who have been killed in combat there since the war began a decade ago.

Obama plans to draw down U.S. troops in Afghanistan beginning in July, while NATO has committed to handing over control of security in the country to Afghans by 2014. For now, though, the war continues.

"We reflect on those who have gone before us. We reflect on their service and their sacrifice on behalf of our great nation," said Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Craparotta, who commands a Marine division in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province. "We should also remember those serving today who embody that same commitment of service and sacrifice."

____

Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Kabul, Afghanistan and Karen Zraick in New York City contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Across America, a day to remember

  1. Closed captioning of: Across America, a day to remember

    >> this memorial day when america honored the fallen, it's worth remembering, u.s. military men and women are in harm's front on three fronts, in afghanistan, in iraq, with nearly 50,000 troops remain as advisers, and now in libya as part of a nato support mission. we'll hear from some of those serving far from home in the broadcast tonight, but first, here in this country, president obama paid tribute to american war heroes as he laid a wreath at the graves of the unknown at arlington national cemetery . and he got personal, too.

    >> to those of you who mourn the loss of a loved one today, my heart goes out to you. i love my daughters more than anything in the world, i i cannot imagine losing them. i can't imagine losing a sister, brother, or parent at war. the grief so many of you carry in your hearts is a grief i cannot fully know. this day is about you. and the fallen heroes that you loved.

    >> across the nation, people took time out for traditional holiday parades and picnics, of course. this one in chicago. further

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