Veterans of Foreign War Post 609 typically draws in dozens of volunteers for their annual Memorial Day service project at Alexandria National Cemetery in Virginia. But they don’t normally have a commander-in-chief in attendance.

Former President Barack Obama surprised volunteers at the Saturday service project, where community members placed American flags at more than 4,000 graves to mark Memorial Day.

The crowd of veterans and local scouts mingled with the 44th president as he helped with the effort. Alexandria National Cemetery is one of the first 14 national cemeteries established in 1862 and is the final resting place of service members dating back to the American Civil War.

“One of the greatest honors of my life was the privilege of serving as commander-in-chief, and with pride also came sometimes heartbreak and loss,” he told attendees ahead of the morning event. “And the sober recognition of the sacrifices that so many Americans and their families have made to preserve our freedom.

“As we go out here, I hope that we just reflect and say a prayer for and say thanks for those who came before us. And for those of you who are still serving those of you who may be serving in the future, thanks to you as well.”

Obama was also joined by Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary Tanya Bradsher and Deputy Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs VA Glenn Powers at the event.

Federal officials are appearing at a host of Memorial Day events this weekend. VA Secretary Denis McDonough is scheduled to speak at the New York Veterans Cemetery Finger Lakes in Waterloo, New York, on May 27. The town, dubbed the “birthplace of Memorial Day,” first marked the holiday in 1866.

VA Chief of Staff Kimberly Jackson is scheduled to speak during ceremonies at Wood National Cemetery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on May 27. Bradsher is also scheduled to speak at Baltimore National Cemetery in Maryland on May 30.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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