America Honors Its Heroes on Veterans Day

Americans across the country paused on Veterans Day to honor those who fought for them in past conflicts as well as those still fighting across the globe.

At a ceremony at Arlington National Ceremony, Vice President Dick Cheney thanked the veterans of all the 20th century wars, from World War I to the Gulf War, and praised those now engaged "in the caves of Afghanistan and the sands of the Middle East."

"Approximately 25 million of our fellow citizens once carried the title of Marine, soldier, airman, sailor, Coast Guardsman, National Guardsman, merchant mariner, and now carry the title of veteran," said Cheney.

"We know them as our neighbors, friends, colleagues and family members. They make us proud to be Americans."

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Cheney noted that the ranks of living World War I veterans were thinning, and singled out 114-year-old Emiliano Mercado del Toro of Puerto Rico. He is believed to be the oldest man in the world.

Prior to his speech, Cheney laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. He was joined by Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and several lawmakers.

At the Vietnam Memorial, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led a ceremony honoring that war's veterans.

"This is an intense moment for me personally because like for so many of you this wall has names on it that are deeply personal," he told his fellow veterans.

Other prominent Vietnam vets on hand were Brig. Gen. Peter Dawkins, now chairman of Citigroup Private Bank, and Gen. Barry McCaffrey, president of BR McCaffrey Associates LLC.

Throughout the country, state and local officials honored their aging veterans. At a statehouse ceremony in Kansas, 106-year-old Jud Wagner, also a World War I vet, was singled out for his service.

With the nation at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Veterans Day took on an added emotional — and political — significance.

Speaking in Pennsylvania, Bush sought to revive support for the Iraq war.

"At this hour, a new generation of Americans are defending our flag and our freedom in the first war of this century," Bush told an audience of military personnel at Tobyhanna Army Depot.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi touted the Democratic-sponsored GI Bill of Rights for the 21st Century, which would provide education, health care and employment assistance to military personnel. "Yes, today is a day of remembrance, of gratitude, and of devotion to America's veterans, but every day must be a day of providing every veteran with the benefits they have earned protecting our nation," Pelosi said.

Howard Dean, chairman of the Democrat National Committee, praised veterans and went on to assail the Bush administration and Republicans for not helping them enough.

"While Democrats have fought against the Bush administration's underfunding of veterans' health care by $3.7 billion, Republicans in Congress have refused to join us," Dean said. "Republicans in Congress need to put aside their broken promises and empty rhetoric about supporting our veterans and join Democrats in standing up for the brave men and women who have served our country."

But in at least one state military personnel got more than supportive words. On Friday, Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney signed a new GI bill drafted by Democrats. The legislation frees National Guard members, who attend state schools at no cost, from paying school fees, and ups the death benefit paid to families of members killed in the line of duty from $5,000 to $100,000.

Along with Romney, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was on hand to honor veterans.

"That's why we're here today: To keep faith," Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, said. "Keep faith with our country. Keep faith with our values. Keep faith with our soldiers."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.