Bush honors newest `heroes'

He marks holiday by hosting troops, kin of those killed

May 29, 2007|By Bob Drogin | Bob Drogin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- President Bush paid tribute yesterday to fallen troops, calling the more than 3,500 Americans killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan "a new generation of heroes."

The president marked Memorial Day four days after saying that he expects increased military casualties in Iraq this summer as a result of the troop buildup now under way.

Bush met with service members who have received medals for distinguished service, and with the families of several soldiers killed in battle, in the Oval Office. He then went to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia and placed the traditional wreath of red, white and blue carnations before the Tomb of the Unknowns, bowing his head while a bugler played Taps.

His wife, Laura, stood nearby with relatives of fallen troops. Behind them, thousands of small U.S. flags fluttered along the rows of white tombstones.

The president's motorcade was greeted at Arlington by scores of tourists who waved at Bush. Just before his limousine crossed over the Potomac River into Virginia, a man held up a sign saying, "Bring our troops home."

In his remarks, Bush invoked the memory of Americans killed during the Civil War, the two world wars, Korea and Vietnam, as well as those killed in the past six years. More than 368,000 are interred at the national burial ground.

"Now this hallowed ground receives a new generation of heroes, men and women who gave their lives in places such as Kabul and Kandahar, Baghdad and Ramadi," Bush said. "Like those who came before them, they did not want war, but they answered the call when it came."

As of yesterday, at least 3,452 members of the U.S. military have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. At least 325 have died in and around Afghanistan since late 2001, when U.S. troops ousted the Taliban, according to the Defense Department.

Bush said Americans' freedom comes at great cost and requires strong resolve and common purpose, and he indirectly addressed public criticism of the war in Iraq.

"As before in our history, we find ourselves under attack and underestimated," he said. "Our enemies long for our retreat. They question our moral purpose. They doubt our strength of will. Yet even after five years of war, our finest citizens continue to answer our enemies with courage and confidence."

Bush praised people who volunteer for the military. "Hundreds of thousands of patriots still raise their hands to serve their country," he said. "Tens of thousands who have seen war on the battlefield volunteer to re-enlist."

They "are not fatalists or cynics," he said. "They know that one day this war will end, as all wars do. Our duty is to ensure that its outcome justifies the sacrifices made by those who fought and died in it."

The president noted that 174 Marines - nearly one-fourth of a battalion - recently asked to extend their enlistment.

"Nothing said today will ease your pain," he told the families of those who have died. "But each of you need to know that your country thanks you."

Meanwhile, violence claimed more victims in Iraq. A suicide car bomber struck a busy commercial district in central Baghdad, killing at least 21 people and damaging a major Sunni Muslim shrine. Elsewhere in the capital, a firefight erupted in the city after insurgents hijacked two minibuses and kidnapped their passengers.

Bob Drogin writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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