A World War II veteran from Rockland was able to share the spotlight with the president of the United States April 1 in Portland.

“This is the best day of my life,” Leroy Peasley said as he took the stage to lead the assembled in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.

Thousands gathered at the Portland Expo Center to hear a speech by President Barack Obama on health-care reform. In addition to those gathered inside to hear the president, many supporters, volunteers and spectators and a few protesters lined the sidewalks up and down Park Avenue in Portland. Many waved signs and chanted slogans including the one from Obama’s campaign: “Yes we can!”

Peasley, 87, took the stage before the president did and thanked Obama for his efforts to help veterans. Peasley served in the  Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater during World War II. He fought in Guam and his division was held in reserve at Iwo Jima (see related story).

The Rockland veteran received a warm reception and strong applause from those gathered.

When the president spoke to the crowd, he said he knew many families and small-business owners were struggling.

“I want you to know that we are working every day to spur job creation and turn this economy around,” he said. “And that’s why we worked so hard over the last year to lift one of the biggest burdens facing middle-class families and small-business owners: the crushing cost of health care in America.”

He also addressed his critics.

“… If you turn on the news, you’ll see that those same folks are still shouting about how the world will end because we passed this bill,” the president said. “This is not an exaggeration. Leaders of the Republican Party have actually been calling the passage of this bill ‘Armageddon.’ They say it’s the end of freedom as we know it. So after I signed the bill, I looked up to see if there were any asteroids headed our way. I checked to see if any cracks had opened up in the ground. But you know what? It turned out to be a pretty nice day.”

Obama pointed out some local examples of health-care needs.

“And let me talk about what this means for a small-business owner like Bill Milliken,” he said. “Bill owns Market House Coffee and the Maine Beer and Beverage Corporation, both here in Portland. He wants to give his part-time employees health insurance and more hours, but he can’t afford to do both. This tax credit will make it easier for an employer like Bill who wants to do the right thing by his workers.”

“… Starting this year, tens of thousands of uninsured Americans with a pre-existing condition and parents whose children have a pre-existing condition will finally be able to purchase the coverage they need,” the president said. “Last week, I met David Gallagher, whose daughter, Lauren, had written me a letter last year. When Lauren’s mom lost her job, their entire family lost their health insurance. When they tried to get new insurance, David was denied coverage because he once had a complication-free hernia surgery. Lauren’s been worried sick about what would happen if her father became ill or injured. But now, because of this reform, David Gallagher can finally have access to health insurance again. That starts this year.”

“… There was a story in a local paper this week about Theresa D’Andrea,” Obama said. “Theresa’s husband passed away recently from cancer, and before he died, he hit the lifetime cap on his insurance. As a result, Theresa not only has to cope with the loss of her husband, but with $60,000 in medical bills — and this is after she already spent all of their retirement savings on medical care. Because of this reform, a situation like Theresa’s will never happen again in the United States of America — starting this year.”

The president also addressed the pledge by his political opponents to repeal the new health-care legislation.

“This is the reform that some folks in Washington are still hollering about,” he said. “And now that it’s passed, they’re already promising to repeal it. They’re actually going to run on a platform of repeal in November. Well, I say go for it. If these congressmen in Washington want to come here to Maine and tell small business owners that they plan to take away their tax credits and essentially raise their taxes, be my guest. If they want to look Lauren Gallagher in the eye and tell her they plan to take away her father’s ability to get health insurance, that’s their right. If they want to tell people like Theresa D’Andrea that they could once again face a lifetime of debt if they lose a family member, they can run on that platform. If they want to have that fight, I welcome that fight. Because I don’t believe the American people are going to put the insurance industry back in the driver’s seat. We’ve been there already and we’re not going back. This country is ready to move forward.”

The president told those gathered to thank Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and Congressman Mike Michaud, D-Maine, for supporting the bill.

Following his remarks, the president went down into the audience and shook hands with many of those in attendance while music was played in the building and people applauded.

Many had stood in line at length not only April 1, but the day before, to be able to see the president. Dan Bolita of Waldoboro said he waited in line for hours the day before to get a ticket to see Obama.

Click for more photos from President Obama’s visit to Maine April 1.