THE PRESIDENT: Good morning, everybody. Thank you, Secretary Carter, for your leadership of our men and women in uniform. General Dempsey; Major General Buchanan; Mr. Patrick Hallinan, Executive Director of Army National Military Cemeteries; Chaplain Studniewski; members of our armed services, veterans, and, most of all, families and friends of our fallen — it is my deep honor to share this day with you again.
For 147 years, our nation has set aside this day to pay solemn tribute to patriots who gave their last full measure of devotion for this country that we love. And while the nature of war has changed over that time, the values that drive our brave men and women in uniform remain constant: Honor, courage, selflessness. Those values lived in the hearts of everyday heroes who risked everything for us in every American war — men and women who now rest forever in these quiet fields and across our land.
They lived in the patriots who sparked a revolution, and who saved our union. They lived in the young GIs who defeated tyranny in Europe and the Pacific. And this year, we mark a historic anniversary — 70 years since our victory in World War II. More than 16 million Americans left everything they knew to fight for our freedom. More than 400,000 gave their lives. And today I ask all the family and friends of our fallen World War II heroes — spouses, children, brothers and sisters, and fellow veterans of World War II — to please stand if you can, or raise your hand, so that our country can thank you once more. (Applause.)
These same values lived in those who braved the mountains of Korea, the jungles of Vietnam, the deserts of the Middle East. And in the past decade, we’ve seen these values on display again in the men and women of our 9/11 Generation.
For many of us, this Memorial Day is especially meaningful; it is the first since our war in Afghanistan came to an end. Today is the first Memorial Day in 14 years that the United States is not engaged in a major ground war. So on this day, we honor the sacrifice of the thousands of American servicemembers — men and women — who gave their lives since 9/11, including more than 2,200 American patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan.
As an Arizona kid, Wyatt Martin loved the outdoors. He started fishing when he was two years old. His dad says he was pretty good for a toddler. Wyatt grew to 6-foot-4, became a hunter and wore flannel shirts every day — so his friends nicknamed him Paul Bunyan. He planned to go to college and work in the Arizona Game and Fish Department so that he could protect the land and waters he loved so much.
Wyatt’s life was animated by the belief that the blessings that he and his family enjoyed as Americans came with an obligation to give back, an obligation to serve. So before he pursued his dream of being a good steward of the great outdoors, he enlisted in the Army. And when he deployed to Afghanistan as a combat engineer, there was no doubt in his mind that he was doing the right thing. Last summer, Wyatt told his sister, “If something happens to me, know that I went happy.”
Ramon Morris was born in Jamaica. He moved to Queens as a teenager. Like so many proud immigrants, he was called –compelled — to serve his new country. He, too, enlisted in the Army, and he even recruited his older brother Marlon to join, as well. He served five tours, including several in Iraq. Along the way, he fell in love with an Army Reservist named Christina. And they had a little girl, and named her Ariana. Ramon was the kind of leader who would do anything for his men, on and off the battlefield. But nothing was more important to him than being a great father to his little girl.
Specialist Wyatt Martin and Sergeant First Class Ramon Morris were 15 years apart in age. They traveled greatly different paths in life. But those paths took them to the same unit. Those paths made them brothers-in-arms, serving together in Afghanistan. In December, an IED struck their vehicle. They were the last two Americans to give their lives during our combat mission in Afghanistan. Today, here in Arlington, in Section 60, Ramon lies in eternal rest. And we are honored to be joined by his brother, Sergeant First Class Marlon Laidley, who is deploying for Germany tonight. Thank you, Marlon. Thank you to your family. (Applause.)
These two men, these two heroes, if you saw them passing on the street, you wouldn’t have known they were brothers. But under this flag, in common cause, they were bonded together to secure our liberty, to keep us safe.
My fellow Americans, this hallowed ground is more than the final resting place of heroes; it is a reflection of America itself. It’s a reflection of our history — the wars we’ve waged for democracy, the peace we’ve laid to preserve it. It’s a reflection of our diversity — men and women of all backgrounds, all races and creeds and circumstances and faiths, willing to defend and die for the ideals that bind us as one nation. It’s a reflection of our character, seen not only in those who are buried here, but also in the caretakers who watch over them and preserve this sacred place; and in the Sentinels of the 3rd Infantry Regiment who dutifully, unfailingly watch over those patriots known only to God, but never forgotten. Today, a grateful nation thanks them as well.
Most Americans don’t fully see, don’t fully understand the sacrifice made by the one percent who serve in this all-volunteer armed forces -– a sacrifice that preserves the freedoms we too often take for granted. 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. But our Gold Star families, our military families, our veterans — they know this, intimately.
Whenever I meet with our Gold Star families, like I did this morning, I hear their pride through their tears, as they flip through old photos and run their fingers over shiny medals. 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.
They’re people like Ramon’s mother, who could carry hate for the people who killed her son — but she says, “I have no anger, no bitterness, even for the person who did this. I feel sorry for them, and I ask God to change their hearts.” That’s one Gold Star mother’s amazing grace.
Folks like Wyatt’s parents, Brian and Julie Martin, who said of their son, “He’s not just our kid, he’s everybody’s. He’s an American soldier. And as an American soldier, he belongs to everybody.”
They are siblings, like the Gold Star sister who wrote to me of her brother, Private First Class Stephen Benish, who gave his life in Iraq in 2004: She said, “Remember him not as the 1,253rd war casualty, but the 6-foot-7 burst of light and positive influence he was on the world.”
These sons and daughters, these brothers and sisters who lay down their lives for us — they belong to us all. They’re our children, too. We benefit from their light, their positive influence on the world. And it’s our duty, our eternal obligation, to be there for them, too; to make sure our troops always have what they need to carry out the mission; to make sure we care for all those who have served; to make sure we honor all those whom we’ve lost; to make sure we keep faith with our military families; to make sure we never stop searching for those who are missing, or trying to bring home our prisoners of war. And we are grateful for the families of our POW/MIAs.
This may be the first Memorial Day since the end of our war in Afghanistan. But we are acutely aware, as we speak, our men and women in uniform still stand watch and still serve, and still sacrifice around the world.
Several years ago, we had more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. Today, fewer than 10,000 troops remain on a mission to train and assist Afghan forces. We’ll continue to bring them home and reduce our forces further, down to an embassy presence by the end of next year. But Afghanistan remains a very dangerous place. And as so many families know, our troops continue to risk their lives for us.
Growing up in Massachusetts, John Dawson was an honor student who played varsity soccer. He loved the Bruins, loved the Pats, and was always up for fun — running into a room while spraying silly string, or photobombing long before it was in style.
And John was passionate about service. He shared the same convictions of so many we honor today, who wanted nothing more than to join a common cause and be part of something bigger than himself. He channeled his love of cycling into charity bike rides with his church. He joined the Army. And as a combat medic, he fulfilled his dream of helping people. He loved his job.
In April, an attacker wearing an Afghan uniform fired at a group of American soldiers. And Army Corporal John Dawson became the first American servicemember to give his life to this new mission to train Afghan forces. The words on John’s dog tag were those of Scripture: “Greater love has no other than this, than to lay down your life for your friends.”
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. 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. By living our own lives the way the fallen lived theirs — a testament that “Greater love has no other than this, than to lay down your life for your friends.”
We are so grateful for them. We are so grateful for the families of our fallen. May God bless our fallen heroes and their families, and all who serve. And may He continue to bless the United States of America. (Applause.)