A year is too soon to remember. At 23, Spec. Joshua Rock knows all about how unforgiving the mind can be. He was new in Iraq last summer, fresh boots on the ground, when two members of his infantry platoon were killed, one in a pipe bomb explosion at the Central Bank of Iraq and the other in battle in front of the national museum. Rock knew both soldiers by name, knew them as buddies.
So Rock, of Morgan City, La., came to a somber ceremony Monday night at the airport just outside the capital to honor the fallen soldiers of the 1st Armored Division, the 93 who have died in combat in Iraq. He came for another reason as well. Rock reenlisted in the Army for another four years, which meant, he acknowledged, that this likely would not be the last Memorial Day he spent far from home.
The deaths of his platoon members, he said, "pretty much set the tone for the deployment. It gives more meaning now to this day. I have something to base this day off of." He opted to stay in Iraq because the mission is not complete, he said. "The Army still needs us," Rock said. "You don't want those guys to die in vain."
Hundreds of soldiers in the 1st Armored Division gathered at dusk inside an open hangar not far from the battlefield where four of the division's members had died in just the past 24 hours. The drums beat in rhythm with the patriotic sounds of the trumpets and clarinets, while soldiers with cigarette lighters rushed to keep a ring of torches burning as the sun set. The drill team clicked and clapped and stomped, their feet and guns a methodic waltz between human and machine. And members of the honor guard took their positions, flags hoisted against the backdrop of the airfield and a bombed-out hangar whose twisted metal looked more sinister as darkness set in.
Only their families were missing from the ceremony. And the smell of barbecue. In their place was this realization: The taps that echoed in the stillness of the heavy heat could easily have been for one of them. No soldier forgets that on Memorial Day in a combat zone.
"I think this day will mean more to me in the future," said Capt. Scott McLearn, 26, a logistics specialist from Gaithersburg, who has been in Iraq now for more than a year. McLearn attended the Memorial Day ceremony to watch his friend, Spec. Rob Krei, 32, of Rockville, march in with 50 others and take the enlistment oath committing themselves to another tour.
"We don't dwell on fallen soldiers out here," Krei said. "You try not to think about it so much in a situation like this. When you're back in the States and you hear about people dying, it's different than when you are here and you get the news that Pfc. Johnson was in that convoy that took that hit."
More than 800 U.S. military personnel have died in Iraq since the start of the war last year. Back home, their families and strangers remembered these soldiers at ceremonies across the United States, as the nation has commemorated its war dead since Decoration Day, as Memorial Day was originally called, was first celebrated by official order in 1868.
Midway. Normandy. Lebanon. Grenada. Panama. The mountains of Afghanistan. Sgt. Mark Satter, 24, of Mitchell, S.D., ticked off the battles where soldiers have lost their lives. It fell to Satter to take the soldiers through the history of war.
He brought them to another battlefield, this one in Pennsylvania, where Abraham Lincoln stood at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg. "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here," Satter recited, quoting Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."
As he spoke, a C-130 cargo plane rumbled in the distance.
"As long as I'm in this uniform, I know my wife and son will be able to do as they please as free Americans," said Sgt. Michael Bogle, 23, whose family was due to start digging into the beef brisket at his grandparents' home in Oklahoma while he lined up to reenlist at the ceremony.
Staff Sgt. Ralph Janek, 42, of Tucson, was spending his second Memorial Day in Iraq. But it wasn't so different from the holidays at home with his family, he said. As a tuba player in a military band, Janek did what he always does on this holiday. He picked up his instrument and puffed out the deep bass of "The Star-Spangled Banner," while soldiers in uniform saluted.
"All these soldiers in these different units have lost people they were close to," he said.
Janek said he recently saw a comic strip in which a couple of children were asked what Memorial Day meant to them and they replied, "That's the day the pool opens."
"That's what we're here fighting for, so our kids can have a childhood, and hopefully the Iraqi children will have a childhood that is not war-torn," said Janek, who has three children.
Lt. Margaret Gunn, of Tuskegee, Ala., arrived in Iraq only a week ago. Her uniform was still crisp, the camouflage not yet faded from the sun and multiple washings. Her dad and uncle are both retired from the military. Gunn, 23, a military intelligence officer, said she is unafraid. A Christian, she has put herself in the hands of God, she said.
As she commemorated her first Memorial Day as a soldier in Iraq, Gunn said she was more aware of the holiday. "I'm more in touch with the real meaning of the day," she said. "I'm thinking about it and remembering the sacrifices."
In a speech to the soldiers, Maj. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the commander of the 1st Armored Division, said the holiday would never be the same again for the soldiers.
"Many things won't be the same in our lives after this experience," he said. "Memorial Day is one of them." The difference, he said, would be "so profound that we won't really understand it until we get away from this experience."