ARLINGTON, Va. - President Bush paid tribute yesterday to America's fighting men and women who died in battle, saying national leaders must have "the courage and character to follow their lead" in preserving peace and freedom.

"On this Memorial Day, I stand before you as the commander in chief and try to tell you how proud I am," Bush told an audience of military figures, veterans and their families at Arlington National Cemetery. Of the men and women buried in the hallowed cemetery, he said: "They're an awesome bunch of people, and the United States is blessed to have such citizens."

That provoked a standing ovation from the crowd in a marble amphitheater where Bush spoke. "Whoo-hoo!" shouted one woman.

Bush and his wife, Laura, traveled from the White House across the Potomac River to the rolling hillsides of Arlington. Along the way, one man stood with a sign that said: "Bring Our Troops Home." But, otherwise, the presidential motorcade was warmly greeted at the cemetery entrance by scores of people, including two men in hats, shirts and shorts made out of American flag material. Others visited grave sites where each white tombstone was marked with a tiny U.S. flag.

"From faraway lands, they were returned to cemeteries like this one, where broken hearts received their broken bodies," Bush said. "They found peace beneath the white headstones in the land they fought to defend. It is a solemn reminder of the cost of freedom that the number of headstones in a place such as this grows with every new Memorial Day."

He eulogized all U.S. troops who have died in service to the nation, but particularly those who lost their lives in the last year.

He singled out Army Spec. Ronald Tucker of Fountain, Colo., who died less than a month ago in Iraq in a bomb attack as he returned from helping build a soccer field for Iraqi children.

Bush also mentioned two Navy SEALs, Michael Koch of State College, Pa., and Nathan Hardy of Durham, N.H., who often headed into battle wearing U.S. flags on their chests under their uniforms. The two died Feb. 4 in Iraq and are buried side by side at Arlington.

"I am humbled by those who have made the ultimate sacrifice that allows a free civilization to endure and flourish," Bush said. "It only remains for us, the heirs of their legacy, to have the courage and the character to follow their lead and to preserve America as the greatest nation on Earth and the last, best hope for mankind."

Bush's motorcade drove out of the cemetery as cannon fire left gray smoke settling over the tombstones.