Service members in Iraq mark Memorial Day

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post staff writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

BAGHDAD -- Inside the ornate palace of the late dictator Saddam Hussein, now the main headquarters of U.S. forces in Iraq, dozens of U.S. service members bowed their heads in prayer at a Memorial Day commemoration.

They thought about their families waiting for them to come home. They thought about the fallen comrades lost in the past seven years of occupation and war. They thought about what would come next.

At the end of 2011, the last U.S. service member is supposed to leave Iraq. Sometimes, the service members wonder whether people at home remember that despite the drop in violence, Americans and Iraqis still die here. About 92,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq; about 4,400 have been killed. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Iraqis have also been killed.

"We've become the forgotten war, like Korea," said Maj. Scott Stewart, an antiterrorism U.S. Air Force officer with the United States Forces-Iraq.

Right now, Iraq is in limbo, he said. There is no government nearly three months after national elections, and it is unclear how history will judge the U.S. mission when he and his comrades are gone, he said.

"We're waiting for the other shoe to drop," said Stewart, standing near a wreath of sunflowers and roses honoring the dead.

Stewart keeps a picture of his 8-year-old son strung around his neck, next to his heart.

"What would he do if I got hurt?" he asked. During his prayers on Memorial Day, he said, he thought about his son and the wounded service members whose lives will be forever changed.

In the past seven years, the mission in Iraq has been transformed, from the early days when the U.S. military controlled the streets, to the pitched battles across Iraq with insurgents who didn't want foreign soldiers on their land, to sectarian violence, to a surge in troops that made U.S. service members buffers in a civil war, and now the drawdown.

U.S. forces will be at no more than 50,000 troops by the end of the summer, and they've pulled out of Iraq's cities. Now Iraqis wait to see who will lead them and what their country will become.

On a day that honors soldiers killed in military service, it wasn't surprising to see men and women in uniform crying.

"We've lost thousands of people," said Capt. Pete Higbie of the III Corps Special Troops Battalion out of Fort Hood, Tex. His eyes welled up and he spoke haltingly about those who were killed. "I think about all that they gave. Not just their lives but the happiness of their wives and children."

His tears are the tears of loss, he said. He has lost an Iraqi translator, a fellow U.S. soldier and an Iraqi soldier and friend he'd fought with during his three deployments in Iraq. But he said he believes these sacrifices were worth the loss.

"It's the suffering, the tragedy and sadness of it all," he said.

Lt. Gen. Robert Cone, the deputy commanding general for operations in Iraq, told service members to remember why they were here and to honor those who had died.

"As we move on from this day, our task is clear," he said. "We each must make a sacred commitment, a commitment to accomplish our mission in Iraq with honor and success. Those we remember today deserve nothing less."

Command Sgt. Maj. Arthur L. Coleman Jr. of the III Corps spent the day thinking about a friend he'd known for 25 years. Command Sgt. Maj. Donovan Watts was killed when his vehicle drove over a roadside bomb during the height of the sectarian violence in Iraq in 2007.

"When you lose a loved one in war, it is painful," he said. "We want to get the job done. We're on track and we can see where the mission has really paid out."

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