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President Barack Obama laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns for Memorial Day and said that Americans “can never fully repay” the debt to fallen soldiers.

He spoke on Monday to about 5,000 people gathered at Arlington National Cemetery and noted that it was the first Memorial Day in 14 years observed without American forces in a major ground war.

The president described the cemetery as hallowed ground — not just a resting place for heroes but a reflection of American history and wars waged for democracy.

“The Americans who rest beneath these beautiful hills, and in sacred ground across our country and around the world, they are why our nation endures,” he said. “Each simple stone marker, arranged in perfect military precision, signifies the cost of our blessings. It is a debt we can never fully repay, but it is a debt we will never stop trying to fully repay. By remaining a nation worthy of their sacrifice.”

Obama said that most Americans do not fully understand the sacrifice of the 1 percent serving in the volunteer military.

“Few know what it's like to take a bullet for a buddy, or to live with the fact that he or she took one for you.” he said. But he said military families know it intimately.

“I hear their pride through their tears, as they flip through old photos and run their fingers over shiny medals,” Obama said. “I see that their hearts are still broken, and yet still full of love. 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.”

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— Erin McClam with The Associated Press