Soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division have stormed Omaha Beach, walked patrols in the jungles of Vietnam and driven the Iraqis out of Kuwait. Since Operation Iraqi Freedom began last year, one in 10 of the U.S. troops killed has been attached to the "Big Red One," as the Army's oldest division is known.
But yesterday, as veterans came to pay tribute to the 13,000 soldiers the division has lost in the nation's wars, a cordon of U.S. Park Police kept them from their monument in the shadow of the White House.
The 78-foot column -- tipped with a golden goddess symbolizing victory and decorated with bronze plaques recording the name of every soldier killed in the division since World War I -- stands within the security cordon set up after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"We can't go up there and visit it, courtesy of Osama bin Laden," retired Lt. Gen. Thomas G. Rhame explained as he stood near 17th and E streets NW in the morning drizzle. "Ever since Sept. 11, it has gotten worse and worse."
Retired Col. Edward J. Burke, a Vietnam veteran, asked, "What kind of threat do a bunch of old veterans pose?" Burke is executive director of the Society of the First Infantry Division, which built the monument in 1922 and organized yesterday's ceremony.
Despite their irritation, the veterans bore the indignity with the patience of soldiers accustomed to worse. Eventually, they know they will be allowed to return, but for a solemn duty: adding another plaque, this one bearing the names of those who have fallen in the war on terror.
Fallujah, Baqubah and Tikrit, rebellious cities in Iraq, will join a list of place names that includes Cantigny, Aachen, Lai Khe and Safwan.
The 1st Infantry, which has had about 20,000 members deployed in Iraq since February, has lost at least 83 soldiers there; 383 others have been wounded, according to the society.
Some of the war dead may not be members of the division proper but are in other Army and National Guard units reinforcing "Task Force Danger," a group of soldiers under the command of the 1st Infantry and among those responsible for security in Iraq. Another part of the 1st Infantry is operating under the command of the 1st Marine Division.
In a brief speech, Rhame reminded the small gathering of veterans and families not only of the Big Red One's illustrious history but also of its recent losses.
"I have written 76 letters of condolence to mothers, fathers, wives," said Rhame, commander of the division during Desert Storm. "I know that is 10 to 12 short of the number killed. Soldiers still stand in harm's way."
Woody Goldberg, who served two tours in Vietnam, visits wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "The troops are an inspiration," he said. "Our nation owes them a great deal."
Howard Bushman, a veteran of the Big Red One who did not see service in wartime, now has a son, Capt. John Bushman, stationed in Iraq with the 1st Infantry. Despite his concern for his son, he did not think the conflict equaled the sacrifices of World War II draftees who spent four to five years deployed in fearsome fighting.
"I don't care," said his wife, Betty Bushman. "I want them all home. They're all our kids."
Howard Heller joined up with his unit seven days after the Normandy landings, taking part in the battles of St. Lo, the Hurtgen Forest, the Bulge and Remagen. "But that was only half the war," he said. "The other half" -- the invasions of North Africa, Sicily and the slaughter at Omaha Beach itself -- "was the hard part."
"I don't think that there's anything that went on in the 20th century," said retired Gen. Gordon Sullivan, a former chief of staff for the Army, " that the soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division didn't participate in."
He added, irritably: "And the more I stand here in the rain and can't get to this monument, the more unhappy I become."
When the ceremony ended, with three sharp volleys of musketry and the playing of taps, the soldiers were finally allowed to see the monument up close. They marched up the grassy slope, past a bold, red garden of begonias forming the numeral 1, to the brass plaques.
Rhame settled near the plaque listing those who died in Desert Storm -- 27 names, among them the first woman on the division's rolls to be killed in combat and the first civilian. He remembered how most of them died -- enemy fire, friendly fire, a helicopter crash.
A blue-jacketed Park Police officer came up to the monument, gathering those who remained. "I hate doing this to you," he said apologetically. "I know it's your day, but the president's coming home, and we have to have the whole area clear."
The old soldiers trudged off without complaint.