(USA TODAY) -- President Obama on Monday honored all Americans who have given their lives for their country, from the Civil War of a century-and-a-half ago to the Afghanistan War that is wrapping up this year.
In Memorial Day remarks delivered a day after a surprise visit to Afghanistan, Obama said U.S. troops there "are coming home" from the conflict that began a month after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"By the end of this year, our war in Afghanistan will finally come to an end," Obama said during the annual Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Obama and his national security aides are talking about the retention of a residual force in Afghanistan after this year, a small force that would train Afghan security forces and possibly engage in specific counterterrorism operations.
During his speech, Obama praised veterans from all the nation's wars. "Everything that we hold precious in this country was made possible by Americans who gave their all," he said. "And because of them, our nation is stronger, safer, and will always remain a shining beacon of freedom for the rest of the world."
The president delivered his Memorial Day speech some four-and-a-half hours after his return to the White House. During his Sunday trip to Afghanistan, Obama received a briefing from commanders at Bagram Air Base, spoke at a rally for the troops, and visited wounded warriors at the base hospital.
Shortly after arriving back at the White House early Monday morning, Obama hosted a Memorial Day breakfast. Guests included senior members of the military leadership, as well as veterans' and military families' organizations.
Obama then traveled to Arlington cemetery, where he placed the traditional wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
This year's Memorial Day came amid news about long wait times for patients at Veterans Affairs hospitals, delays that may have led to deaths. The administration is also investigating whether VA officials altered paperwork to cover up the length of the wait times.
Obama did not specifically mention the VA controversy during his speech, but did note the obligation that the nation owes its veterans. He said, "we must do more to keep faith with our veterans and their families, and ensure they get the care and benefits and opportunities that they've earned and that they deserve."
The president also noted that this year is the 150th anniversary of the "holy space" at Arlington National Cemetery, created in the wake of the Civil War as "a final resting place for those willing to lay down their lives for the country that we love."