MINNEAPOLIS — Recalling "those awful attacks," President Barack Obama saluted the 9/11 generation of veterans Tuesday and publicly relished the prospect of U.S. forces getting out of both Iraq and Afghanistan.
"They have borne an extraordinary burden, with more than 2 million of our service members deploying to the war zones," Obama said. "Hundreds of thousands have deployed again and again, year after year. Never before has our nation asked so much of our all-volunteer force – that 1 percent of Americans who wears the uniform."
Speaking before thousands of veterans and their families attending the American Legion's annual convention, Obama said the Americans who have worn the uniform since Sept. 11 have put the nation in a position of strength and have earned their place among the greatest of generations.
"Every day for the past 10 years, these men and women have succeeded together as one American team," Obama said.
Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; more than 6,200 American troops have been killed and tens of thousands wounded.
Since taking office, Obama has set a course for drawing down both wars after a decade of continuous conflict. All U.S. troops are set to leave Iraq by the end of this year, though the Iraqis could still request that some American troops stay. And in Afghanistan, the 33,000 surge forces Obama deployed in late 2009 are set to come home by the end of next summer, with the U.S. aiming to transfer the lead security role to Afghan forces by 2014, leaving remaining U.S. forces in a support role.
"For our troops and military families who have sacrificed so much, this means relief from an unrelenting decade of operations," Obama said.
Still, the president spoke of ending, not of winning, the Afghanistan war. "As our mission transitions from combat to support, Afghans will take responsibility for their own security, and the longest war in American history will come to a responsible end," he said.
Even as Obama spoke, an Associated Press tally showed that August has become the deadliest month for U.S. troops in the nearly 10-year-old war in Afghanistan, where international forces have started to go home and have left Afghan forces to take charge of securing their country.
A record 66 U.S. troops have died so far this month, more than the 65 killed in July 2010. This month's death toll soared when 30 Americans – most of them elite Navy SEALs – were killed in a helicopter crash Aug. 6.
Obama said the nation's commitment to service members must continue after they return home. He outlined steps his administration has taken to combat homelessness among veterans and support wounded warriors, especially those with traumatic brain injuries.
Despite pressure for Washington to slash its debt and deficits, Obama pledged to protect programs that assist veterans from looming budget cuts.
"We cannot, will not, and we must not, balance the budget on the backs of our veterans," Obama said.
The president also acknowledged that the shaky economy means veterans face uncertain employment prospects when they return home. He highlighted initiatives he proposed earlier this summer that would create new training programs for veterans and give tax credits to companies that hire service members.
The White House has said 1 million military veterans are unemployed. Among those who joined the military after the Sept. 11 attacks, the unemployment rate was 13.3 percent as of June.
The nationwide unemployment rate is 9.1 percent.
Getting more veterans to work was high on the minds of those attending the convention.
"We do feel like veterans should have priority because of their service to their country," said Eddie Price, an 86-year-old World War II veteran from Wilson, N.C. "Almost every state, they tell me the veteran unemployment is higher than the regular unemployment. That doesn't seem right."
Associated Press writer Martiga Lohn contributed to this report.