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Aamer Madhani and Judy Keen
USA Today

Big cities and small towns across the USA paid homage Monday to the nation's war heroes, marking Memorial Day with lively parades, solemn memorials, bake sales and picnics.

President Obama visited

Arlington National Cemetery

to honor troops who gave their lives in battle while noting that tough days lie ahead for Americans in Afghanistan.

This Memorial Day marks the first since the end of the war in Iraq and comes weeks after Obama announced his plan to wind down combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014.

PHOTOS: Honoring veterans on Memorial DaySTORY: Memorial Day: Remembering those killed in Iraq, Afghanistan

"For the first terms in nine years, Americans are not fighting or dying in Iraq," Obama said. "We are winding down the war in Afghanistan and our troops will continue to come home."

The president and first lady Michelle Obama started their day with a breakfast at the White House for Gold Star Families, the loved ones of U.S. troops who died during service.

Before his remarks at Arlington, the president continued the annual tradition of the commander in chief laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and delivered remarks.

Through the generations, the men and women who have fought and died on behalf of the United States have a unique connection, Obama said.

More on honoring fallen soldiersSTORY: Remembering those killed in Iraq, AfghanistanSTORY: Website reaps military mementos

"From the jungles of Vietnam to the mountains of Afghanistan, they stepped forward and answered the call," Obama said. "They fought for a home they may never return to, they fought for buddies they would never forget.

"While their stories may be separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles, they rest here together side-by-side, row-by-row, because each of them love this country and everything it stands for more than life itself."

Obama, Vice President Biden, and their wives later visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall for a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. Obama challenged veterans and Americans to correct the narrative about the men and women who served during one of the most controversial conflicts in American history.

Obama paid tribute to the 58,000 Americans who died in the conflict and 3 million other Americans who fought in Vietnam. He lamented that Vietnam veterans were too often blamed for a war they didn't start when they should have been commended for serving with valor.

"It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened," Obama said. "That is why here today we resolve that it will never happen again."

Washington wasn't the only place where tribute was paid to those who gave their lives in battle. In Chicago, the names and photos of a dozen Illinois military personnel who were killed in the past year were added to the General John A. Logan Monument in Grant Park.

Their deaths brought to 243 the number of troops from Illinois who have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

"Every casualty touches us," Marine Capt. Christian Palmer, 29, who served in both wars and participated in the ceremony, told USA TODAY. "Every single one of these deaths is a tragedy."

Palmer said Memorial Day is "a very complicated day." It is, he says, "a very abstract holiday" that helps "put a human face on the fallen" and provides "a great chance to explain to people that we're still here, we're part of society."

Maj. Gen. John Borling, who served in the Air Force for 37 years and was a prisoner of war for 6 ½ years in North Vietnam, also was part of the ceremony. He told USA TODAY that the purpose of Memorial Day is to "rejoice in our freedom and honor our war dead."

Borling became emotional and placed his hands on the wall to steady himself. He glanced at the names on the panel he was touching and instantly saw the name of a squadron mate and Air Force Academy classmate who was shot down over Vietnam.

"That's when I lost it," Borling said. That moment and that lost friend often come to mind on Memorial Day. It helps him, he said, "remember what the day is really about."

In St. Paul, Minn., the grave of Lt. David Oakes was the center of a ceremony Monday at Oakland Cemetery.

Oakes is the only Minnesota victim of the Civil War's First Battle of Corinth 150 years ago whose body was returned to his home state for burial. His grave was rededicated and marked with a specially designed sesquicentennial flag.

It's part of an ongoing effort to honor Minnesota's Civil War soldiers, says Ken Fliés, a member of the Governor's Civil War Commemorative Task Force.

"We want to identify all of the Civil War soldiers in Minnesota before more time passes," he says. "So many of their burial sites are unknown or their tombstones have degraded to where they're just forgotten."

Fliés says there could be 10,000 or more graves of Civil War veterans in the state. It's important to find them "so they're not forgotten," he says.

"If we're going to forget the Civil War today, what happens years from now to the World War II soldier, the Vietnam soldier or the soldier who served in Afghanistan?" he says. "It's a way of saying to everybody, 'Let's not forget.'"

In Simsbury, Conn., 11-year-old Haley Latorre organized her second annual bake sale to raise funds for the Wounded Warrior Project. Pies, cookies, brownies, banana bread and pet treats were on sale at the Memorial Day parade. Last year, the sale raised $1,200 and $100 more in cash donations.

"We'd like to raise at least $100 more this year," says Latorre, who just finished sixth grade. "Maybe more like $2,000." Her father serves in the Air Force and told his daughter about the non-profit group, which aids returning troops and provides assistance to their families.

The project, Latorre says, helps make the holiday "a happier time."

A "happier time" was had by all at the Louisville's Hike, Bike and Paddle festival, a fitness event that also features yoga and tai chi as part of the Mayor's Healthy Hometown movement.

"We're just trying to get people fit," Mayor Greg Fischer said.

Contributing: Dan Klepal,The Courier-Journal in Louisville

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