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American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 25, 2009 - President Barack Obama made an unannounced visit to Arlington National Cemetery today, surprising about 30 of the 98 living Medal of Honor recipients attending a wreath-laying ceremony.
Though it was first awarded some 150 years ago, only 3,448 troops have received the honor conferred for conspicuous courage at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.
Several hundred sightseers and tourists visiting the cemetery watched as the military heroes from World War II, Korea and Vietnam stood in two separate rows, facing the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Obama walked down the steps of the amphitheater toward the tomb, with two Medal of Honor recipients at his side, while two other recipients, using the aid of canes, followed down the steps.
The president was accompanied by retired Navy Lt. John W. Finn, a 92-year old veteran of World War II; retired Navy Capt. Thomas J. Hudner, an 84-year old Korean War veteran; retired Air Force Col. Joe M. Jackson, an 85-year old Vietnam War veteran; and retired Army Col. Robert L. Howard, a 69-year old Vietnam veteran.
Obama and the medal recipients walked together toward a large flowered wreath, bearing the words, "Medal of Honor Day," that soldiers carried on a stand and placed between them and the Tomb. Obama then placed his hands on the wreath. As a drum roll began, and Taps was played, the president the four heroes placed their right hands on their hearts.
The assembled medal recipients formed a receiving line as the president stopped to shake hands and talk briefly with each one.
In a White House statement released later in the day, the president praised all who wear the uniform of the nation's armed forces and singled out Medal of Honor recipients, who he characterized as the "bravest of the brave."
"Members of our Armed Forces hold themselves to the highest standards and set an example of responsibility to one another and to the country that should inspire all Americans to serve a purpose greater than themselves." Obama said. "Today we pay our respect to those who distinguished themselves conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty - the recipients of the Medal of Honor.
"Since it was first awarded during the Civil War to the current battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, Medal of Honor recipients have displayed tremendous courage, an unfailing determination to succeed, and a humbling willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice," he said. "It is telling that so many Medal of Honor recipients received the award posthumously. These soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsman embody the best of American values and ideals.
"Medal of Honor recipients are the foremost example of greatness in service and sacrifice," Obama continued. "Their bravery and humble strength continues to reassure our nation of the strength of its character and ideals even in these difficult times. We owe these heroes a debt of gratitude that our nation can never fully repay.
"So, it is on this day that we salute that fact and celebrate their lives and heroic actions that have placed them amongst the "bravest of the brave," he said. "We must never forget their sacrifice and will always keep the Fallen and their families in our thoughts and prayers."