With the commander-in-chief busy touring the Asian continent, Vice President Mike Pence stepped in Saturday to commemorate Veterans Day at Arlington National Cemetery with a speech that ended on a remarkably personal note.
Pence — dressed in a black suit, white shirt and a striped red tie — began his remarks just before noon to a crowd of veterans and their supporters on an unseasonably cold November morning by expressing President Trump’s greetings.
“Our president is halfway around the world, but I know his heart is here,” Pence told the crowd.
The vice president used the speech to defend the Trump administration as a stalwart champion of service members and their families, at one point listing off efforts made to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Let me be clear: veterans’ benefits are not entitlements. They are earned,” he said in a line that garnered applause.
Pence said the Trump administration had expanded the Veterans Choice Program and “already fired or suspended over 1,500 VA employees for negligent behavior.”
He also told his audience the White House is working to funnel more resources to the armed forces, declaring “before this year is out, we’ll enact the largest investment in our national defense since the days of Ronald Reagan.”
Defense Secretary James Mattis and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke were also in attendance.
Pence — known for his indefatigably composed demeanor — concluded his address on a personal note, his voice at times wavering slightly.
The vice president — who himself never served in the armed forces but who is both the son and father of servicemen — recounted a conversation with someone who told him that his father’s participation in the Korean War had irrevocably changed him.
“I don’t think your dad ever got over the guilt of coming home,” Pence recalled the man saying.
“Know this,” Pence said, addressing veterans who were listening. “We’re with you. You do not carry that burden alone.”
Earlier in the ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, with the assistance of a soldier, Pence somberly laid a decorated wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
But Pence’s commemoration of Veterans Day began even earlier on Saturday.
As the sun rose over the National Mall, the vice president and his wife, second lady Karen Pence soaked rags in buckets of soapy water and helped hand-wash the dark, reflective surface of the Vietnam Memorial.
He said the cleaning was a “moving start to Veterans Day.”