WASHINGTON — President Biden paid homage on Thursday to veterans, calling them the “solid steel spine” of the United States and the “soul of America” as he marked the first Veterans Day in two decades without troops engaged in an active war overseas.
For Mr. Biden, who ended the 20-year conflict in Afghanistan this summer, the moment was clearly a personal one as he expressed his gratitude to the thousands of service members and their families who were affected by the fighting in that country.
In short but somber remarks at Arlington National Cemetery, Mr. Biden thanked them for their service and pledged to ensure that those who returned from battle would receive what he called “the world-class benefits that they’ve earned.” He promised to keep pushing to expand services for veterans.
“Being president of the United States, you are afforded many opportunities to try to express your love, commitment and admiration for the American people,” Mr. Biden said. “And I must say to you that the single greatest honor I’ve been afforded as president is to stand before so many of you.”
Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was divisive. Allies complained about his lack of consultation. Republicans criticized him for making a premature decision. And he received broad condemnation for a haphazard and chaotic evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies. Even some veterans groups expressed dismay at the way the conflict ended.
But the president has repeatedly said he has no regrets about the decision to pull out of a war that he long believed should have ended years ago. In previous speeches, Mr. Biden has said he could no longer send members of the military to fight a battle that he no longer believed was in the country’s best interests.
On Thursday, Mr. Biden made only a brief reference to his decision, noting that “for two decades, the lives of our service members and their families and veterans have been shaped by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
He noted that 53,323 Americans had been killed or wounded in the two conflicts, and he said that members of the military continued to serve in the face of threats around the globe.
But the president suggested that the absence of war was an opportunity to focus attention on those who had served, survived and returned. He urged service members not to ignore the mental challenges that often follow wartime service, any more than they would ignore a wounded arm or leg when they returned home.
“I want to say clearly to all our veterans, if you’re struggling — you’re so used to never asking for anything — if you’re struggling, reach out,” Mr. Biden said.
“If you’re having trouble thinking about things,” he added, “it’s no different than if you had a wound in your arm.”
Mr. Biden, as he has often in previous speeches, recalled his own son’s service in the military. As a major in the Delaware Army National Guard, Beau Biden spent a year in Iraq before returning to the United States and later succumbing to brain cancer.
“Our grandkids learned what it meant to have their dad overseas in a war zone instead of back at home for a year, tucking them into bed and reading that story every night,” the president said. “Thousands of Americans, tens of thousands, have had that experience.”
But he spent more time paying tribute to the story of the first American fighter from World War I to be put to rest at the Tomb of the Unknowns exactly 100 years ago.
During Mr. Biden’s remarks, he recalled the journey the soldier made from the battlefield in France to lying in state at the Capitol in the same place that Abraham Lincoln had.
“He was escorted from the Capitol by the president of the United States, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, members of Congress, General Pershing, the chiefs of staff, Medal of Honor recipients,” Mr. Biden recalled, adding, “The first unknown lies now with his brethren, unnamed warriors from later wars, fellow patriots who picked up the mantle of honor.”
Before speaking, Mr. Biden participated in the annual ceremony at the tomb, placing a wreath and saluting while a bugler played taps.
Afterward, he urged Americans to “stand in solemn awe of such fidelity because for us to keep faith with American veterans, we must never forget exactly what was given us.”
Earlier on Thursday, Mr. Biden’s administration announced efforts to provide more support to veterans who have been exposed to environmental hazards during their service, including those who have symptoms from exposure to “burn pits” while serving overseas.
The actions are aimed at making it easier for service members to link diseases and exposure to the burning of human waste and electronics, which was common on bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The issue is personal for the president, who has said he believes his son may have developed his brain tumor because of exposure to carcinogens in the jet fuel used to set the burn pits on fire while he served in Iraq.
“For the newest generation of veterans, concerns about burn pits and other exposures continue to mount,” a statement from the White House said. “The Biden-Harris administration is committed to doing more to enable timely access to services and benefits for those potentially exposed to hazardous materials.”
Mr. Biden’s executive actions will lower the evidence needed for veterans to prove a link to exposure during their service, and will add several conditions to the list of diseases automatically presumed to be caused by the exposure.
For those who qualify, it will be easier to apply for disability benefits and access to health care by the Department of Veterans Affairs.