ATLANTA - Americans gathered at memorials, museums and monuments and the president laid a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery to honor fallen service members on Memorial Day, as combat in Afghanistan approaches 12 years and the ranks of World War II veterans dwindle.
"Let us not forget as we gather here today that our nation is still at war," President Barack Obama said after laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
"When they give their lives, they are still being laid to rest in cemeteries in quiet corners across our country, including here in Arlington," he said. He told the stories of three soldiers who had died. Each had been devoted to their mission and were praised by others for saving lives.
Hours later, veterans from conflicts from World War II to Afghanistan and Iraq gathered in Atlanta to dedicate a new veterans' park. Soldiers, airmen, Marines and seamen looked on as veterans and military family members sprinkled soil, sand and water from battlefields and waterways across the world.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Rick Lester called it "a reminder of our country's timeline of freedom." A 26-year veteran with multiple tours in Vietnam, Germany and Korea, Lester conceived the ceremony as a way to honor living veterans and those who never made it home.
The pilot recalled in detail the numbers of men lost on missions he flew in Vietnam. "All I can think about is how those were some of the greatest guys I ever met and what they would have done for this country once they got back," he said.
The soil and sand ranged from Revolutionary battlefields like Lexington and Concord to Tikrit in Iraq. There was none from the Civil War, Lester said, because "that was a time that our country was divided."
Battlefield remnants were mixed in a helmet Lester's father wore on D-Day in France in 1944. They were sprinkled from cups that his uncle, a Marine, used in World War II. His father lived. His uncle was killed in action.
Susan Jimison poured water collected from the Hudson River, Chesapeake Bay, Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean.
Her brother, Mark Clotfelter, was a helicopter pilot shot down June 16, 1969, in Vietnam. The 22-year-old was later confirmed dead. Jimison was 14 at the time and recalled how a politically unpopular war affected the way her brother's death was treated. "Nobody talked about it," she said.
It wasn't until many years later that she started trying to learn about his military service and those who served alongside him. Now, she's married to a man, Michael Jimison, who flew with him, and she's writing a book about their company.
It's important, she said, for Americans to learn the personal stories behind military history and international conflict. "My brother died doing what he loved doing," she said.