ARLINGTON, Va. – Standing before war veterans and their families at Arlington National Cemetery (search), President Bush on Monday spoke of the sacrifice and courage of U.S. service members and the importance of each life given to "serve the cause of peace."
He addressed the crowd after placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns (search) Monday. A charcoal sky and light mist hung over the remembrance.
John Kerry, Bush's presumed Democratic challenger, traveled to Portsmouth, Va., to march in the city's 120th annual Memorial Day (search) parade after paying tribute at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
While Virginia has been a solidly Republican state in recent elections, Democrats think recent population shifts have put the state in play, and Kerry's been advertising heavily.
The Kerry campaign is convinced his background as a decorated Vietnam veteran can help him appeal to voters along the Virginia coast, with its big bases in Portsmouth and Norfolk.
It was a day of mostly muted political rhetoric, eclipsed by the public tributes and the playing of Taps.
"Through our history, America has gone to war reluctantly," Bush said. "In places like Kabul and Kandahar, in Mosul; and Baghdad, we have seen their decency and their braves spirit."
Bush did take a moment in his speech to praise Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld for "your great leadership," however. Rumsfeld has heard calls for his resignation in connection with the prisoner abuse scandal.
Events across the nation ranged from a Civil War reenactment in Los Angeles to a concert by the United States Air Force Band of Liberty in Concord, Mass.
Deb Granahan never gave much thought to Memorial Day. It was a day off from work, an excuse to find some great buys at the mall and a chance to crack open the grill for a family barbecue.
That was before her son died in Iraq.
Pfc. Anthony D'Agostino, of Waterbury, was one of 16 U.S. soldiers killed when his Chinook helicopter was shot down near Baghdad on Nov. 2. He would have turned 21 on the day his remains were flown back to Connecticut.
"I have such a different respect and understanding of Memorial Day," Granahan, 43, said last week. "I will remember not only my son, but others who have passed on and who have given us our freedom."
With the country still fighting battles in Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans groups and families expected a somber weekend.
For Clifford Jones, 56, of East Hartford, Memorial Day isn't a special day to think about the sacrifices of U.S. soldiers abroad. He already does that every day.
The retired Navy diver recently sent care packages full of homemade chocolate chip cookies and bug spray to his two sons who are both on active duty. Army National Guard Spc. Aaron Jones has been in Iraq since April, and Air Force 1st. Lt. Clifford Jones Jr. is stationed in California.
"The emotions run the gamut. When things are calm, everything runs smoothly. But when the insurgents are coming in, you have moments of just terror," said the elder Jones.
In Redondo Beach, Calif., the family of Army Sgt. Brian Wood plan to lead the annual Memorial Day parade. The honor, offered after the death of their son, is not something they ever sought.
Wood was killed April 16 when his military vehicle pulled off the road and hit a mine in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, just weeks after Wood's 21st birthday.
Still, the Woods remain committed to U.S. efforts in Iraq.
"We're there doing something we needed to do. It's not easy," said Brian Wood's father Greg. "It's costly, but we understand the cost, more than most Americans."
Others planned to take comfort in remembering the living — the 135,000 men and women still serving in Iraq — rather than the 800 or so U.S. lives lost.
Since her son died July 28, Adeline Maher has been involved in AdoptaPlatoon Soldier Support Effort, a nonprofit that connects deployed troops with pen pals.
"I had to something. I had all this energy inside of me. I guess I could have gone into a depression. But no, my son wouldn't have done that. I do what he would have done," she said.
For Vivian and James LaMont, it's their second Memorial Day to mourn the death of the youngest of their nine children, Marine Capt. Andrew David LaMont. He was killed on May 19, 2003, when the supply helicopter he was piloting crashed in Iraq.
This year, the LaMonts have left behind the constant reminders of their son in Eureka, Calif., where for years they led the Rotary Club's local Memorial Day celebration.
Vivian LaMont said she and her husband are looking forward to a fresh start in Tucson, Ariz., a place where they weren't immediately known as parents who lost a son in Iraq.
"I think my husband and I are starting another journey in being somewhere else," she said. "You can miss the person very much, but to agonize over it would be a detriment to his memory. You can't look back."
No matter where she goes, the memory of her son's life — not his death — will remain.
"He's really here with me," she said.
In his speech, Bush singled some of the dead from Iraq for special commendation:
—-Capt. Joshua Byers, a West Point man and South Carolina native. "When this son of missionaries was given command of a 120-man combat unit, he wrote to his parents, 'I will give the men everything I have to give,' " Bush said.
—PFC Jesse Givens of Springfield, Mass., had written to his wife Melissa: "Do me a favor after you tuck the children in — give them hugs and kisses from me," the president noted.
—Master Sgt Kelly Hornbeck of Fort Worth, Texas, wrote his parents saying, "I am not afraid and neither should either of you be," Bush said.
"Because of their fierce courage, America is safer, two terror regimes are gone forever and more than 50 million souls now live in freedom," Bush said to a warm applause.
Bush's appearance, by dint of tradition and practice, was a tribute to people who have fallen in all U.S. wars past and present, although he particularly cited Iraq. For Kerry, a decorated veteran, it was a day to focus on that conflict of the 1960s and early 70s — one he would ultimately march and speak against.
Bush gave a speech; Kerry said little as he walked somberly along the shiny black granite wall where the names of the more than 58,000 who fell in Vietnam are etched in time and remembrance. He rubbed his thumb over one of the newest names to be added to the memorial.
"So young," the Massachusetts Democrat mused, as he looked at a photograph of William Bronson, who died in 1976 from a seizure caused by a head wound he had received in 1968. Kerry had worked with the Navy to have Bronson's name added to the wall, and he was joined there by Bronson's mother, Barbara, and other family members.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.