May 25, 2009 -- President Obama honored America's fallen servicemembers at Arlington National Cemetery Monday morning, saying that those who choose to serve their country are the "best of America."
"Why, in an age when so many have acted only in pursuit of narrowest self-interest, have the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of this generation volunteered all that they have on behalf of others? Why have they been willing to bear the heaviest burden?" Obama asked. "Whatever it is, they felt some tug. They answered a call. They said, 'I'll go.'
"That is why they are the best of America, and that is what separates them from those who've not served in uniform: their extraordinary willingness to risk their lives for people they never met."
The president spoke after laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington and said the cemetery, which is the final resting place for soldiers dating back to the Revolutionary War, serves as a reminder of the "meaning of valor."
"With each death, we are heartbroken; with each death, we grow more determined," he said.
Reiterating his pledge to only send American troops into war "when it is absolutely necessary," the president said that his commitment to the nation's men and women in uniform extends beyond their service in the theater of war.
"I promise all our servicemen and women that, when the guns fall silent and you do return home, it will be to an America that is forever here for you just as you've been there for us," he said.
Despite an appeal for him to end a presidential tradition dating back to Woodrow Wilson, President Barack Obama sent a Memorial Day wreath to the Confederate Monument at Arlington Cemetery. But he also sent a wreath to a monument honoring African-American soldiers who fought in the Civil War.
In his remarks, Obama did refer to that decision, but he did note that soldiers from both sides of the Civil War were laid to rest there.
"Not far from here, appropriately just across a bridge connecting Lincoln to Lee, Union and Confederate soldiers share the same land in perpetuity," he said.
A group of several dozen university professors and scholars wrote a letter to the president asking him to not send a wreath or any commemorative token to the memorial erected in honor of the soldiers who fought and died for the South in the Civil War.
"We ask you to break this chain of racism stretching back to Woodrow Wilson, and not send a wreath or other token of esteem to the Arlington Confederate Monument," the letter states. "This monument should not be elevated in prestige above other monuments by a presidential wreath."
In their letter to the president, the group says that the monument is a "denial of the wrong committed against African Americans by slave owners, Confederates, and neo-Confederates."
As a compromise, Obama sent a wreath to the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
He is the first president to send a wreath to this memorial that honors the 200,000 African-American soldiers who fought for the Union Army.
Obama also sent wreaths to the Mast of the USS Maine and the Spanish American War Memorial, both at Arlington.
The Confederate monument at Arlington dates back to 1914, when it was unveiled on the 106th anniversary of the birthday of the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.
In the early days, though hundreds of Confederate soldiers were buried at Arlington, it was considered a Union cemetery and family members of Confederate soldiers buried there were not allowed to visit the graves.
In 1900, Congress authorized a special section of Arlington to be set aside as a burial location for nearly 500 Confederate soldiers. They are buried in concentric circles, with the monument built in the center.
A Presidential Tradition
On June 4, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson spoke at the monument as veterans from the Union and Confederate Armies laid wreaths on the graves, as a symbol of unity.
Since then, American presidents have sent a wreath to adorn the monument. President George H.W. Bush changed the tradition by sending a wreath on Memorial Day, not on Davis' birthday as his predecessors had done.
President Obama used his weekly radio/Internet address to pay tribute to America's veterans, servicemen and women, and their families.
"This is not only a time for celebration, it is also a time to reflect on what this holiday is all about; to pay tribute to our fallen heroes; and to remember the servicemen and women who cannot be with us this year because they are standing post far from home – in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world," he said on Saturday.
ABC News' Sunlen Miller contributed to this report.