By Roberta Rampton and Jeff Mason
COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER FRANCE (Reuters) - President Barack Obama paid tribute on Friday to U.S. veterans who 70 years ago stormed the beaches of northern France, telling them their spirit of courage and sacrifice is being continued by a new generation of soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.
More than 250 World War Two veterans in their late 80s and early 90s, many of them frail, traveled to Omaha Beach to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
For most, it likely will be the last time they are able to witness a milestone anniversary of the Allied invasion in northern France that helped bring the defeat of Nazi Germany.
"Whenever the world makes you cynical – stop and think of these men," Obama told the audience of 14,500 people.
A 21-gun salute and a fly-over by F16 fighter jets shook the cemetery, where 9,387 white marble headstones mark graves of American soldiers lost in battle.
"It was here, on these shores, that the tide was turned in that common struggle for freedom," Obama said, recounting the drama and bloodshed of D-Day on the sweeping beach that lies below the cemetery.
Obama told the stories of several veterans, including 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper Kenneth "Rock" Merritt, who is from Oklahoma but now lives in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He was dropped in the dead of night behind enemy lines, one of the first to reach French soil.
Merritt, now 90, said he remembered how dark it was, and how terrifying: "Oh hell, I was standing in that plane, 2:30 in the morning, and it was rocking people sick, bullets flying everywhere, and I prayed to God to live 'til daylight," he said in an interview.
"Some guy said, 'Rock, what do you want to live to daylight for?' I said, "I want to see who's trying to kill me.'"
It was Merritt's first time at a D-Day ceremony in Normandy and only his second time back since the war.
"I've got a lot of people out there," Merritt said. "I think about them all the time."
"I MISS MY GRANDFATHER"
Obama has a deeply personal connection to veterans. His grandfather Stanley Dunham, who helped raise Obama, fought in World War Two, serving in France six weeks after D-Day.
"I don't think there's a time where I miss my grandfather more, where I'd be more happy to have him here, than this day," Obama said in extemporaneous remarks, coming close to choking up.
His time in office has been defined by the struggle to end lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars that began after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
Lately, Obama has grappled with a scandal over cover-ups of waiting times for veterans seeking medical care. He has faced a backlash over a deal made with the Taliban to release Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, a prisoner-of-war in Afghanistan.
Obama has called meeting with wounded veterans the "most searing moments of my presidency."
In his speech, he described the heroism of several of the new generation of veterans, including Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg, whom Obama first met at the 65th anniversary of D-Day.
A few months later, Remsburg was almost killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. He has since re-learned to speak and walk.
"This generation – this 9/11 generation of service members – they, too, felt some tug. They answered some call," Obama told the older veterans.
"I want each of you to know that your legacy is in good hands."
(Writing by Roberta Rampton, Editing by Alexandria Sage)
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