Updated at 3:38 p.m. ET: WASHINGTON -- Speaking at a hallowed site for fallen warriors on Memorial Day, President Barack Obama hailed the winding down of two wars, adding that the country needs to honor its returning veterans as well as those friends and family for whom trips to military graves are a bittersweet routine.
"These 600 acres are home to Americans from every part of the country who gave their lives in every part of the globe," the president said at Arlington National Cemetery, after taking part in the traditional laying of a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
“Whenever revolution needed to be waged and a union needed to be saved, they left their homes and took up arms for the sake of an idea," Obama said. “They rest here together side by side, row by row, because each of them loved this country and everything it stands for, more than life itself."
The president added that it is his obligation and that of all commanders in chief to send soldiers into harm’s way only with a clear mission.
Addressing families of the fallen at the cemetery’s amphitheater, the president said, “After a decade under the dark cloud of war, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon,” a line he has used recently to tout the end of combat missions in Iraq and a gradual drawdown in Afghanistan.
But, he continued, “especially for those who lost a loved one, this chapter will remain open long after the guns have fallen silent.”
He said that Americans should remember the individual stories of heroes who reflect the collective experience and sacrifice of the armed forces.
“One thing we can do is remember these heroes as you remember them: not just as a rank or a number or a name on a headstone, but as Americans, often far too young, who are guided by a deep and abiding love for their families, for each other and for this country,” the president said.
He recalled an Air Force pilot who met his wife on an aircraft carrier, an accountant who joined the military to do something “more meaningful with his life,” and a young man who just days before he was killed in action told his father how formidable his fellow Marines were.
The president said that to honor these soldiers and their loved ones “who carry a special weight” on their hearts, America can “strive to be a nation worthy of your sacrifice; a nation that is fair and equal, peaceful and free.”
He suggested that part of that goal is the responsible deployment of troops only when necessary, which he said he takes to heart.
“As Commander in Chief, I can tell you that sending our troops into harm's way is the most wrenching decision that I have to make. I can promise you I will never do so unless it's absolutely necessary,” he said.
“And that when we do, we must give our troops a clear mission and the full support of a grateful nation,” he continued.
'Serving your country with valor'
Later Monday, the president commemorated the 50th anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War with a visit to that conflict’s memorial on the National Mall.
More than 2,000 Vietnam veterans and family members of soldiers who died were invited to Monday's ceremony marking the beginning of a 13-year program to honor those who served in the Vietnam War and educate later generations about the war.
Standing in front of the veterans and families in the sweltering heat, Obama said that the ungrateful reception given to many returning Vietnam veterans was a “national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened.”
“You were often blamed for a war you didn't start when you should have been commended for serving your country with valor,” he said.
He cited some of the policies his administration is pursuing, including disability benefits, more job opportunities and increased mental health resources as steps the country can take to ensure veterans are always given the respect and appreciation they deserve.
“Let's resolve to take care of our veterans as well as they've taken care of us. Not just talk but action. Not just in the first five years after a war but the first five decades,” he said.
After he spoke, the president laid a wreath at the memorial along with Rose Marie Sabo-Brown, the widow of Army Specialist Leslie Sabo, who recently received the Medal of Honor for his valor during the Vietnam War.
Military aircraft flew overhead as Obama walked back from laying the wreath, holding Sabo-Brown’s hand, and the ceremony came to a close.
More content from msnbc.com and NBC News:
- Remains found at campsite believed to be missing hiker
- Sandy Dahl, wife of 9/11 United Flight 93 pilot, dies at age 52
- Barbecues 'bottom of the list' for mothers of fallen troops
- The beauty in the details: Idaho's 'Field of Heroes'
- Survivors of military suicide victims come together to grieve
- Video: 80-year-old survives chute mishap