WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama honored the nation's military heroes in a pair of Memorial Day ceremonies, vowing to protect the benefits earned by veterans and their families in an election year marked by the nation's transition from war.
The president celebrated Memorial Day at the Vietnam War Memorial and at Arlington National Cemetery on Monday, noting that for the first time in nine years, "Americans are not fighting and dying in Iraq," and the nation was winding down its role in the conflict in Afghanistan.
"After a decade under the dark cloud of war, we can see the light of the new day on the horizon," Obama said at the Arlington amphitheater lined with American flags under a warm, brilliant sun.
The president paid special tribute to Vietnam veterans, noting that many "came home and were sometimes denigrated when you should have been celebrated. It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened." Yet, "even though some Americans turned their backs on you, you never turned your back on America," Obama said.
Both Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney appeared at events with military families. They avoided overt political talk but tried to appeal to veterans.
Obama said the nation must remain committed to providing for the families of fallen soldiers and help returning service members seeking jobs, higher education or health care benefits.
"As long as I'm president, we will make sure you and your loved ones will receive the benefits you've earned and the respect you deserve," Obama said. "America will be there for you."
Obama said sending troops into harm's way was "the most wrenching decision that I have to make. And I can promise you I will never do so unless it's absolutely necessary." The comments underscored Obama's moves to end the war in Iraq and move to bring all troops home from Afghanistan by 2014.
Romney, meanwhile, promised to maintain an American military "with no comparable power anywhere in the world."
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee appeared with Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the GOP's 2008 presidential candidate, before a crowd in San Diego estimated at 5,000 in what was billed as a Memorial Day service, not a campaign event.
Romney, however, drew clear contrasts with Obama, warning against shrinking America's military in Europe's image. The former Massachusetts governor said the nation must have the world's strongest military to win wars and prevent them.
McCain, meanwhile, said Romney, "I believe, is fully qualified to be commander in chief."
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.
A poll released Monday by Gallup found that 58 percent of veterans support Romney and 34 percent back Obama. The results were based on a sample of 3,327 veterans who are registered voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.
Several closely watched states in the election have large blocs of military voters. Florida, home to several military installations, has more than 1.6 million veterans, according to the Veterans Administration. Pennsylvania has nearly 1 million veterans, while Virginia and North Carolina each have about 800,000 veterans living in their states.