WASHINGTON (NNS) -- Eleven times, the nation has marked another Sept. 11 come and gone and paused in remembrance, reflection, unity and purpose, President Barack Obama said during a service at the Pentagon Memorial.
Joining the president on stage before a somber audience were Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Behind them, a large American flag hung from the top of the Pentagon, draping over the side of the building like the one firefighters and soldiers unfurled that morning in 2001 during rescue and recovery efforts after hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.
"This is never an easy day," Obama said. "But it is especially difficult for all of you -- the families of nearly 3,000 innocents who lost their lives -- your mothers and fathers, your husbands and wives, your sons and your daughters. They were taken from us suddenly and far too soon."
The president said no one can imagine the pain that surviving families and friends have endured or how difficult it has been for them to carry on and rebuild their lives.
"But no matter how many years pass, no matter how many times we come together on this hallowed ground, know this: that you will never be alone," Obama said.
"Your loved ones will never be forgotten," he added. "They will endure in the hearts of our nation because, through their sacrifice, they helped us make the America we are today -- an America that has emerged even stronger."
The president noted that those who boarded the ill-fated airliners or went to work at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, had no inkling of what was to come.
"Most of the Americans we lost that day had never considered the possibility that a small band of terrorists halfway around the world could do us such harm," Obama told the Pentagon audience.
"Most had never heard the name al-Qaida," he said, "and yet it's because of their sacrifice that we've come together and dealt a crippling blow to the organization that brought evil to our shores. Al-Qaida's leadership has been devastated, and Osama bin Laden will never threaten us again. Our country is safer, and our people are resilient."
Most of those who died on Sept. 11 had never worn the nation's uniform, the president said, but they inspired more than 5 million Americans to enlist in the military services and do everything their country has asked over the past decade.
"Today, the war in Iraq is over. In Afghanistan, we're training Afghan security forces and forging a partnership with the Afghan people. And by the end of 2014, the longest war in our history will be over," Obama said. "Meanwhile, countless civilians have opened their hearts to our troops, our military families and our veterans."
In 2001, memorial services were held for Americans of different races and creeds, backgrounds and beliefs, Obama said. "And yet," he added, "instead of turning us against each other, tragedy has brought us together."
American's fight is with al-Qaida and its affiliates, not with Islam or any other religion, the president said. "This country was built as a beacon of freedom and tolerance," he continued. "That's what's made us strong, now and forever.
On a day when others sought to bring the nation down, its citizens choose to build it up with a National Day of Service and Remembrance, the president said.
"This anniversary allows us to renew our faith that even the darkest night gives way to a brighter dawn," he said. "Today we can come here to the Pentagon and touch these names and kneel beside a building where a single stone still bears the scars of that fire."
In Pennsylvania, anyone can visit the field of honor where one of the hijacked airliners crashed on 9/11 and remember the heroes who made it sacred, he added. In New York, water cascades into the footprints of the Twin Towers, and a new tower rises above the New York skyline.
"Though we may never be able to fully lift the burden carried by those left behind, we know that somewhere a son is growing up with his father's eyes, and a daughter has her mother's laugh -- living reminders that those who died are with us still," Obama said.
When the history books are written, the president said, "the true legacy of 9/11 will not be one of fear or hate or division. It will be a safer world, a stronger nation, and a people more united than ever before."
Earlier, on a cool morning that was much like the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the president and First Lady Michelle Obama began the day with a simple ceremony of their own at the White House. Soon after 8:30 a.m., hundreds of White House staff gathered on the South Lawn in the shade of the portico and in patches of sun. Most stood with hands crossed in front of them, speaking in whispers.
At 8:45 a.m., two Marines appeared before the door beneath the portico leading onto the South Lawn. Another pair of Marines presented the colors -- one holding the flag, the other a trumpet.
At 8:46 am, about the time American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, a full Marine color guard emerged from the doors, taking up a place on each side of an aisle left for the president and first lady.
The couple walked slowly down the grassy strip and stood with heads bowed as the Marine trumpeter began playing taps, then held hands as they walked back into the White House.