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Honoring a Woman Who Returned to Serve

Ex-Captain Died in Iraq as a Civilian

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 2, 2005; Page B03

Barbara C. Heald qualified twice over for the interment ceremony she received at Arlington National Cemetery yesterday.

Heald, 60, had served as a captain in the Air Force in the 1970s, and her husband, who died in 1996, served in the Army and was interred there. But for her family, the longtime Falls Church area resident deserved a place at the nation's sacred military cemetery for a third reason as well: After retiring from a career in government service, she volunteered to go to Iraq to help in the country's rebuilding, not once, but three times.


The U.S. flag is folded over the remains of Barbara C. Heald of Falls Church, a retired Air Force captain who died while serving as a civilian in Baghdad. (Photos Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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A civilian who worked for the Army's Project and Contracting Office, Heald was killed Jan. 29, on the eve of the Iraqi national elections, when a mortar round crashed through the roof of the Republican National Palace in Baghdad's Green Zone. Also killed in the attack was Navy Lt. Cmdr. Keith E. Taylor, 47, of Irvine, Calif. The two were reportedly at their desks in makeshift offices in the ballroom of the palace, which serves as the U.S. Embassy.

Heald's plaque at Arlington will bear the abbreviations KIA OIF -- killed in action, Operation Iraqi Freedom -- a rare distinction for a civilian.

"We believe she deserved that, given how she died," said Margaret Geis, Heald's sister. "She was one of the good guys. She was trying to rebuild."

Heald was honored by the Air Force yesterday, with a line of airmen in their deep blue uniforms winding along the cemetery's paths ahead of the caisson bearing her remains. She worked for the Army in Iraq, however, and she was embraced by that service as well. Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey attended the ceremony under a slate gray sky and within sight of the Pentagon.

"People should know how and why our sister fell in the nation's service," said her brother John Geis, who said she has been honored as well as any fallen soldier.

Heald, a Stamford, Conn., native, had lived in the Washington area since 1987 and worked as a contract negotiator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She took early retirement, traveling the world and spending time at a home in the Shenandoah Valley. There, she met Gabriele Mecca, who yesterday remembered Heald's adventurous and playful spirit. The two became close during a church trip to Ireland, where Mecca recalled that her friend was unfailingly curious.

Heald decided to come out of retirement when she realized that her skills could be useful in Iraq, Mecca said. She arrived for her first tour in 2003 and had just returned to Iraq from a break in early January.

"I think she's an inspiration to people who are older, who have retired, but who still have so much to give in terms of knowledge and wisdom and education," Mecca said.

Heald's sister said she believed deeply in her mission in Iraq and became close to civilians there. One Iraqi translator invited Heald to have dinner at his Baghdad home. Later, she spent a week with his family in Jordan after he left the country to escape death threats.

"For her to be invited to stay in their home for that much time, there was so much mutual respect there," said Geis, who lives in Yuma, Ariz.

Heald also became close to her American co-workers. In lieu of flowers, her family asked friends to donate to a scholarship fund set up for Taylor's children. Heald is survived by three grown stepchildren and three siblings.

In Iraq, Heald maintained her good humor even as she worked long days and weeks, her sister said. Geis said Heald was never the strongest swimmer, but she e-mailed a picture of herself performing her first-ever dive from a high board -- into Saddam Hussein's swimming pool.

An avid knitter, Heald also sent a photo of herself in front of a famous statue in Baghdad, clad in floppy desert hat and a thick bulletproof vest and holding up a copy of Knitter's Magazine.

Her love of the craft was so profound that her sister said the family decided to inter a ball of yarn and knitting needles along with her ashes.

"That way," Geis said, "she'll have something to do."


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