AVONDALE, Ariz. -- President Barack Obama paid tribute Monday to the men and women who have died defending America, pointing to Vietnam veterans as an under-appreciated and sometimes maligned group of war heroes who remained true to their nation despite an unwelcome homecoming.
"You were sometimes blamed for the misdeeds of a few," Obama said at the Vietnam War Memorial. "You came home and were sometimes denigrated when you should have been celebrated. It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened."
"Even though some Americans turned their backs on you, you never turned your back on America," Obama said.
The president's message came as a welcome surprise to veterans at a Memorial Day event in Avondale Monday
"If it comes from the top, it means a lot to Vietnam Veterans," said Jim Swartz, "And I think he should say it every chance he gets. Every elected official should say it."
"I totally agree, totally agree," said Mike Valabeck, who recalled a difficult transition back to home life.
"It's where a lot of the PTSD came from. Not from what was going on in Vietnam, but from the way we were treated when we got home," he said.
Marking Memorial Day at both the black granite wall honoring more than 58,000 soldiers who died in the Vietnam War and earlier at Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River from the capital, Obama noted 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.
As he seeks re-election, Obama has reminded audiences about the end of the war in Iraq and the move to bring all troops home from Afghanistan by 2014.
In a campaign ad released last week, the President credits US servicemen who helped in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, meantime, 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.
But Romney nevertheless drew clear contrasts with Obama. The former Massachusetts governor warned against shrinking America's military in Europe's image and said the nation must have the world's strongest military to win wars and prevent them.
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 2 percentage points.