President Joe Biden on Thursday paid tribute to the nation’s service members, calling the duty to care for its veterans America’s “one truly sacred obligation” and describing presiding over Veterans Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery as the single greatest honor he had been afforded in office.

“All our veterans past and present, we thank you. We honor you. And we remember always what you’ve done for us … You veterans are the soul of America, America’s soul. It’s why our veterans have always fought, always been willing to put themselves on the line,” Biden said in a speech to about 650 people after a wreath-laying ceremony Thursday morning at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

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Biden remembered three prominent veterans who passed away in recent weeks: former secretary of state Gen. Colin L. Powell, a Republican and a friend; Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who helped devise Iraq War strategy; and former senator Max Cleland, D-Ga., a Vietnam War veteran and triple amputee who led the Veterans Administration, now the Department of Veterans Affairs, during the Carter administration. Theirs were the stories that inspired future generations to enlist, Biden said, adding that being a veteran was “a badge of courage that unites across all ages, regardless of background.”

“Because to be a veteran is to have endured and survived challenges most Americans will never know,” Biden said. “You’ve done it for us. You’ve done it for America. To defend and serve American values, to protect our country and our constitution against all enemies.”

Remembering those who serve

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As he frequently has when speaking with veterans groups, military families or those who are grieving, Biden invoked his late son Beau Biden, who served as a member of the Delaware Army National Guard and deployed to Iraq for a year.

“Jill and I learned what it meant to pray every day for the safe return of someone you love,” Biden said about his son’s deployment. “So many of you have done that.”

The event was buttressed with etiquette and mostly devoid of any polarizing political references. VA Secretary Denis McDonough, who spoke before Biden, briefly mentioned Afghanistan, from where the last U.S. troops departed Aug. 30, ending the nearly 20-year war there that was launched as a response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Conservatives have criticized the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, during which 13 U.S. service members were killed in an attack as they were supporting evacuation efforts.

“From the beginning of our fight for independence at Lexington and Concord to the end of the longest war in American history, in Afghanistan, millions of veterans have risked their lives to preserve the democratic ideals of this great nation,” McDonough said. “We live in peace and prosperity today because of them and because of you.”

Biden referred to a card he carried with him at all times that had the numbers of U.S. troops who had been killed or wounded in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Those numbers stood at 7,074 and 52,323, respectively, he said Thursday, with “untold thousands more” returning with unseen psychological wounds.

“Folks, on Veterans Day, we have to always remember that there’s nothing low-risk or low-cost about war for the women and men who fight it,” he said.

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Earlier Thursday, the administration announced plans to expand support for veterans who had been exposed to potential contaminants and environmental hazards in the line of duty, including the herbicide Agent Orange and toxic burn pits. Some of those actions include allowing access to VA service and benefits for a wider array of medical conditions that could to be tied to exposure to such toxins, improving data on individual exposures, expanding training for VA and non-VA health-care providers, and extending veterans’ eligibility period for VA health care.

For example, veterans who served in “the Southwest Asia theater of operations” and developed asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis within 10 years of their service are now eligible to apply for disability benefits and access to VA health care, the White House said Thursday.

“Taken together, these actions will improve our understanding of the health effects of military-related exposures, educate providers and veterans about these exposures, and provide timelier access to health services and benefits for individuals who were exposed,” the White House said in a statement. “The Administration will continue to prioritize efforts to support veterans who were exposed to environmental hazards during their military service.”

Biden has speculated that his son Beau might have developed brain cancer after being exposed to burn pits while deployed to Iraq. Beau Biden died in 2015, two years after being diagnosed with brain cancer.

“We’re going to keep pushing on this front to be more nimble and responsive, reviewing all the data and evidence to determine additional presumptive conditions to make sure our veterans don’t have to wait to get the care they need,” the president said.