President Barack Obama paid tribute Monday to the men and women who have died defending America, singling out Vietnam war veterans as an under-appreciated and sometimes maligned lot and saying that should never happen again.
Marking Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery and the Vietnam War Memorial, Obama noted that for the first time in nine years, "Americans are not fighting and dying in Iraq," and the nation was winding down its role in the conflict in Afghanistan.
"After a decade under the dark cloud of war, we can see the light of the new day on the horizon," Obama said to an audience gathered at the Arlington amphitheater lined with American flags under a warm, brilliant sun.
In this election year, Obama said the nation must remain committed to providing for the families of fallen soldiers and help returning service members seeking a job, higher education or health care benefits.
"As long as I'm president, we will make sure you and your loved ones will receive the benefits you've earned and the respect you deserve," Obama said. "America will be there for you."
Obama said sending troops into harm's way was "the most wrenching decision that I have to make. And I can promise you I will never do so unless it's absolutely necessary."
Later, at the Vietnam War Memorial, Obama honored the troops who served and died in that war, commemorating the 50th anniversary the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The White House said the gathering would begin a 13-year program honoring those who served during the Vietnam War.
He said it was "a national shame, a disgrace" that veterans came home from Vietnam only to be "denigrated" in many quarters for their service. He said that should never happen again and said that history "will honor your service," adding that Vietnam veterans served "with just as much patriotism and honor as any before you."
"When you came home, I know many of you put your medals away," the president said. "You didn't talk to much about your service. As a consequence, the nation didn't always appreciate the chapter that came next." He said that although many Americans "turned their back on you, you never turned your back on America."
As he seeks re-election, Obama has reminded audiences about the end of the war in Iraq and the move to bring all troops home from Afghanistan by 2014. And in a campaign ad released last week, he credits U.S. servicemen who helped in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Republican Mitt Romney was scheduled to appear Monday with Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP nominee, in San Diego, home to a large number of military personnel and veterans. Romney has made the case that too many veterans are returning home to poor job prospects, casting blame on Obama's economic policies.
A Bureau of Labor Statistics report in March found that 12.1 percent of U.S. Armed Forces veterans who served on active duty after September 2001 were unemployed in 2011. The unemployment rate for all veterans was 8.3 percent.
Veterans could play a significant role in the 2012 election. Exit polls in 2008 showed that Obama was supported by about 44 percent of voters who said they served in the military, while 54 percent voted for McCain, a former Navy pilot who was a prisoner of war for more than five years during the Vietnam War.
A poll released Monday by Gallup found that 58 percent of veterans support Romney and 34 percent back Obama. The results were based on a sample of 3,327 veterans who are registered voters and had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.
Several closely watched states in the election have large blocs of military voters. Florida, home to several military installations, has more than 1.6 million veterans, according to the Veterans Administration. Pennsylvania has nearly 1 million veterans, while Virginia and North Carolina each have about 800,000 veterans living in their states.
The president and first lady Michelle Obama started the day with a breakfast at the White House for families who have lost loved ones in combat.