President Bush acknowledged the “great costs” of U.S. military deaths from his administration’s war on terrorism during a Memorial Day service Monday as the combined U.S. death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan climbed toward 1,000.
Atop a rainswept hill in Arlington National Cemetery just outside Washington in Virginia, Bush placed a wreath at the marble tomb of unidentified soldiers killed during the two world wars and in Korea before bowing his head for a national moment of silence.
He then stood at a podium in the cemetery’s marble-columned amphitheater to extol the “decency” and “brave spirit” of U.S. soldiers overseas and describe the Iraq of Saddam Hussein as a terrorist regime akin to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, which sheltered Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida militants.
“The war on terror we’re fighting today has brought great costs of its own,” Bush said.
“Those who have fought these battles and served this cause can be proud of all they have achieved. And these veterans of battle will carry with them, through all their days, the memory of the ones who did not live to be called veterans,” he added.
“This is the loss to our nation,” the president said.
Official Pentagon statistics show 802 U.S. dead and 4,682 wounded in Operation Iraqi Freedom as of Friday morning. Another 122 have died and 310 more have been wounded as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, mainly in Afghanistan. The official figures do not include at least five soldiers in Iraq and four in Afghanistan who were killed during the weekend.
Bush vs. Kerry
Bush is campaigning for re-election as a war president against the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who made his own Memorial Day visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
In a misty rain under grim skies, Kerry laid a wreath with the family of William Bronson of Massachusetts and sought out the names of friends he lost during his decorated service in southeast Asia.
Bronson died in 1976 of injuries he sustained during combat. Kerry led the fight to have his name added to the 58,244 that are already inscribed on the black granite wall.
“I’m glad we could finally get the appropriate thing done,” Kerry told Bronson’s mother, Barbara. “I’m really happy we could get this. He belongs up there.”
Kerry also visited Portsmouth, home to the naval shipyards, making a statement to Republican-leaning Virginia that his campaign was not writing off the state, which Bush easily won in 2000.
With Gov. Mark Warner — who has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential running mate — by his side, Kerry watched a parade but did not speak publicly.
Kerry plans a push into the state this week when he launches new television commercials, the start of a $17 million month-long ad campaign that also targets black and Hispanic audiences.
“I don’t care what’s usual or not usual,” Kerry told reporters. “There’s not much that is usual about this campaign.”
Rumsfeld at Bush’s side
Arlington was one in a series of war-related appearances for Bush, who spoke Saturday at Washington’s new World War II memorial and will visit France on Sunday for the 60th anniversary of the invasion at Normandy on D-Day.
However, Iraq has become a political liability for the president in recent months, with the approaching June 30 handover to an Iraqi interim government overshadowed by insurgent violence and a scandal over abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
Appearing on stage with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Bush lauded the character of U.S. military personnel who he said had made America safer by ending “two terror regimes” and freeing more than “50 million souls.”
“Since the hour this nation was attacked, we have seen the character of the men and women who wear our country’s uniform,” said the president, who has backed Rumsfeld despite calls his resignation over his handling of the war in Iraq.
“We have seen their decency and their brave spirit,” Bush added.
A presidential visit to the Tomb of the Unknowns has long been a tradition on Memorial Day, a holiday of remembrance dating back to the aftermath of the Civil War.