(WJLA/AP) - President Barack Obama led the nation in commemorating Memorial Day, declaring the United States has reached "a pivotal moment" in Afghanistan with the end of war approaching by year's end.
Obama, who returned just hours earlier from a surprise visit with U.S. troops at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, paid tribute to those lost in battle there and elsewhere over history. He called them "patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice" for their country. Obama said that "many of us will never know" the courage and sacrifice of parents and loved ones across America who have lost a child, spouse, brother, sister or friend in war.
And he made a fleeting reference to the widening scandal involving reports of poor performance by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is facing allegations of delayed treatments, and even deaths in Arizona. Obama said the country owes it to its veterans the care they need.
Closing his brief remarks, he said, "May God Bless the falling and all those who have served and watch over their families."
The president was joined by first lady Michele Obama and Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, at the solemn ceremony across the Potomac River from White House on the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The remembrance was for the war heroes of yesteryear as well as servicemen and women stationed around the world. It was carried out in idyllic weather under cloudless skies and a brilliant sunshine. The national observance was to be matched by parades, picnics and speeches across the country.
Obama appeared at the cemetery's amphitheater to speak after carrying out the traditional presidential wreath-laying, surrounded there by troops in formal dress and hearing the playing of Taps.
Preceding Obama to the microphone, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, himself a military veteran, noted this year's remembrance came with the approaching 70th anniversary of America's D-Day landing in Normandy, France. And Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said "America's sons and daughters are still out there today on the frontiers of our common defense."
Elsewhere, thousands commemorated Memorial Day at the annual parade in Rockville, Md., and the festival and parade in Falls Church, Va.
In addition, more than 200 cyclists, including wounded veterans, began a 350-mile ride Monday. It's called the "Ride 2 Recovery" Memorial Challenge. The ride started Monday morning in Arlington and went to the home of Vice-President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden, who gave them a big send-off, including a "selfie" posted to Twitter by the vice-president.
Later on Monday, the district is preparing for the annual Memorial Day parade that marches down Constitution Avenue in Northwest, beginning at 2 p.m.