Obama honors fallen soldiers, Vietnam veterans on Memorial Day

President Obama paid tribute to America's fallen soldiers Monday, honoring the sacrifice of those who loved their country "more than life itself" and giving special thanks to the veterans of the Vietnam War.

Speaking in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to commemorate 50 years since the start of the war, the president said it is time to set the record straight about the service of those Americans. He described their mistreatment upon return from the battlefield as a "national shame" but pledged history would honor all those who served, living and dead.

"We honor each of those names etched in stone -- 58,282 American patriots," Obama said on Memorial Day. "You were often blamed for a war you didn't start, when you should have been commended for serving your country with valor."

Earlier in the day at Arlington National Cemetery, Obama also pledged to those who've returned home from the past decade of war that "America will be there for you." The president used the occasion to again mark the end of the Iraq war and the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

"For the first time in nine years, Americans are not fighting and dying in Iraq," Obama said, to applause from the audience. "After a decade under the dark cloud of war, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon."

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Obama cited the stories of several U.S. soldiers who gave their lives in that war, and he said America's soldiers must have "the full support of a grateful nation." For those who have returned home -- many bearing the physical and mental scars of battle -- Obama pledged to ensure they receive the benefits they are due.

"We can meet our obligations to those who did come home," Obama said. "As long as I'm president, we will make sure you and your loved ones receive the benefits you've earned and the respect you deserve. America will be there for you."

According to a recent Associated Press analysis, returning veterans are filing for disability benefits at a historic rate. About 45 percent of the 1.6 million veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are seeking compensation for injuries -- about double the percentage during the Gulf War. Lawmakers have recently tried to make sure looming Pentagon cuts do not eat into veterans' benefits.

As part of the day of ceremonies Monday, the president earlier in the morning placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, in a brief and solemn ceremony punctuated by the playing of taps.

Thousands of miles away in San Diego, Obama's presumptive opponent in the general election was also participating in Memorial Day ceremonies. Mitt Romney, attending a veterans event alongside Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., cautioned in his remarks that "the world is not safe" and said America faces a choice between making European-style defense cuts and preserving its military as the strongest in the world.

He said America must choose the latter course, not to win wars but to prevent them.

"A strong America is the best deterrent to war that ever has been invented," Romney said.

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.

San Diego, where Romney spoke Monday, is 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.

The president and first lady Michelle Obama started the day Monday with a breakfast at the White House for families who have lost loved ones in combat.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.