President Bush paused on Veterans Day to honor U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan during his presidency and in wars past. As he spoke, U.S. warplanes and artillery pounded insurgents in Iraq.
“Some of tomorrow’s veterans are in combat now in Iraq,” Bush said at Arlington National Cemetery, where he laid a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknowns. “They have a clear mission to defeat the terrorists and aid the rise of a new government that can defend itself. They are making us proud. ... They are winning.”
There are about 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, up several thousand from a few weeks ago. As the Iraq war nears the two-year mark, the U.S. death toll stands at more than 1,140.
Bush also honored the 25 million living U.S. veterans. “Our nation thanks them all,” he said in a somber address.
He said that because Americans were willing to serve in uniform and sometimes sacrifice their lives, America was the “greatest force for good” among all nations of the world.
Joining Bush at the ceremony were his wife, Laura, and several members of his Cabinet. His motorcade entered the grounds of the vast cemetery, where more than 260,000 military dead are buried, through a phalanx of bayonet-wielding honor guard members and to the sounds of cannon blasts.
Earlier Thursday, Bush held a private reception on the State Floor of the White House with veterans, leaders of veterans organizations and Medal of Honor recipients.
Cities and towns across America honored veterans at ceremonies big and small, including an event recognizing a teenage Purple Heart recipient in South Carolina and a parade on the streets of Manhattan.
In San Diego, 80 sailors and Marines from 25 countries — from Canada to Syria — became citizens in a Veterans Day ceremony aboard the USS Midway, a reward for putting their lives on the line for their adopted country.
U.S. District Judge William Hayes administered the oath of citizenship, noting that many of the troops were from countries that denied individual liberties and had left behind families who “cannot know what joy you are experiencing today.”
“You as representatives of the armed forces know above all, like most citizens, that freedom is not free,” Hayes said. “Thank you for your sacrifice.”
Bush signed an executive order in July 2002 allowing anyone on active duty after Sept. 11, 2001, to immediately apply for citizenship. There are about 31,000 non-citizens in the U.S. military.
“I wouldn’t want to compare myself to World War veterans or Vietnam veterans,” said Marine Cpl. David Antonio Garcia, 21, originally from Mexico, who was with combat engineers who cleared the path for tanks to roll into Iraq. “But I feel some of what they must feel today. I know what it’s like to leave loved ones and not to know if you will come back.”
Teenage Purple Heart recipient applauded
On the other end of the country, dozens of veterans, some into their 80s, stood and applauded one of the nation’s youngest Purple Heart recipients during a ceremony in North Charleston, S.C.
Marine Lance Cpl. Nicholas Riccio, 19, who was born on the Fourth of July and wanted to be a soldier from childhood, was wounded in Iraq in June when shrapnel from a mortar round passed through his brain. He survived, but only after a Navy corpsman held his head together on a 30-mile drive to a first aid station.
“I guess you could say I grew up quick,” he said. “I was 18 years old, a gunner, a Humvee driver and engaged in firefights against insurgents in Fallujah.”
In New York, thousands lined Fifth Avenue for a parade that has seen attendance surge in recent years. “Five or 10 years ago when I would come, there might be 200 or 300 people here,” Sen. Charles Schumer said. “And now the whole street is full.”
In Whitman, Mass., however, the parade turned tragic when a World War II veteran was killed in an accident.
Witnesses said William Hammond was lining up with fellow veterans at the start of the parade route when a van backed over him. The van was driven by a close friend of Hammond. He was taken to a hospital to be treated for emotional distress.