WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama paid tribute Monday to fallen U.S. military men and women during a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery that highlighted a veterans care scandal that has engulfed his presidency in recent weeks.
Just hours earlier, Mr. Obama returned from a surprise trip to Afghanistan, where he thanked troops for a mission that will conclude formally at the end of this year. The president noted that more had to be done to ensure that those who served in the armed forces abroad were treated well when they came home.
"We rededicate ourselves to our sacred obligations to all who wear America's uniform, and to the families who stand by them always," Mr. Obama said, pledging troops would have needed resources and that the United States would continue to search for those who had gone missing or become prisoners of war.
"As we've been reminded in recent days, 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," he said.
The Obama administration has been stung by allegations that veterans have suffered long delays in receiving health care and that the Department of Veterans Affairs had engaged in mismanagement and cover-ups.
During a news conference last week, Mr. Obama indicated that Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki's job could be on the line if the issues are not fixed. Mr. Shinseki was present at the Arlington ceremony but did not speak.
Before his remarks, Mr. Obama laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, an annual ritual. Taps was played while the crowd of dignitaries and visitors stood silently.
Mr. Obama singled out those who had served in Afghanistan, including the men and women he met during a roughly four-hour trip to Bagram Air Base on Sunday.
"Our troops are coming home. By the end of this year, our war in Afghanistan will finally come to end," he said to applause from the crowd.
Obama finds himself struggling to articulate what role he sees the U.S. playing on the world stage for the remainder of his second term. The ongoing conflict in Syria and Russia's threatening moves have also raised questions about how the U.S. can credibly threaten consequences against international foes when Obama so clearly wants to stay out of another large-scale military endeavor.
The president's surprise trip to Afghanistan Sunday marked the start of a concerted White House effort that aims to answer some of those questions. Even as Obama heralded a drawdown of U.S. forces that will bring the war to "a responsible end" later this year, he said it was likely that a small contingent of U.S. forces would stay behind for counterterrorism missions, as well as to train Afghan security forces.
The president is expected to fill in details of his post-2014 Afghanistan plan during a commencement address Wednesday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The Pentagon has been pressing for Obama to keep up to 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, though the White House also has been evaluating options that call for fewer forces.
Meanwhile, an "open letter" from Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the ranking Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, to the nation's veterans in which he castigates the leadership of veterans organizations has prompted a brutal war of words over the weekend, including a promise from the Veterans of Foreign Wars that its "hat in hand" approach to Congress will turn more combative.
Associated Press and The New York Times contributed.