Tributes to the fallen come home
December 1, 2011
In some places on Camp Victory in Iraq, there are so many concrete T-walls lining the streets that, combined with the general bleakness of the place, the dust in the air and the eerie dusk-like light it casts on everything, it'd be the perfect setting for a sci-fi movie about a mining camp on some desolate, remote planet.
Occasionally, though, there's a splash of color on one of those T-walls -- walls meant to protect tents and their occupants from possible mortar attacks from outside the gate. Sometimes it's a unit insignia there on the wall, with maybe some Latin on there too.
There's also sometimes a list of names of Soldiers who have died -- memorials to those killed in combat.
"You could walk into some of these base camps that we've been at six or seven or eight years and you will see row after row of T-walls with individual names on them," said Lt. Col. Jerry E. Brooks, the command historian at U.S. Forces Iraq.
Soldiers want a way to remember their buddies lost in battle, or an IED attack or a rocket attack Brooks said.
"These units, even down to a company level, will say we want to do something to honor this person -- because we've trained with him, he is our buddy and we want to dedicate our deployment to him," Brooks said.
Nearly 4,500 Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen died in Iraq during Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn. While their bodies went home, their buddies stayed behind to continue the fight. To remember their friends they put up plaques, named buildings or rooms in buildings, painted names on T-walls or on plywood signs, or even put up the traditional boots, bayonet, helmet and dog tag memorial -- such as at Camp Adder.
There, Brooks said, the boots and helmet represented many Soldiers lost, with a plaque indicating all those lost at Adder. "What they've done is, rather than it being a single unit's memorial, it has evolved into a base camp memorial," Brooks said.
Whatever his buddies used to memorialize their friend, one thing is for sure -- it would be inappropriate to leave behind what was created to remember the war dead.
"You don't just want to leave it," Brooks said. "What you don't want is to turn over a base to the Iraqis or the Somalis or whoever, and leave your memorials there, and a couple of nights later they decide to loot the place."
The "worst case scenario," Brooks said, might involve insurgents desecrating what was meant to honor those lost in the fight.
"Next thing you know there's a picture of two al-Qaida fighters there firing at a memorial for some Soldier who died in Iraq," Brooks said. "There's the impact on the family, and it's just the spectacle of it."
So in leaving Iraq, the Army makes sure to take care of not just equipment there, but also the memorials that are left behind. They are all either sent home, and hopefully sent to the families of those they memorialize, or, if it's not possible to send them home, they are photographed and then "sanitized."
"They're whitewashed," Brooks said, referring to the T-walls, for instance, which are far too heavy to be brought home with the last units departing the country.
"If the last unit has a desire they could take every single memorial back -- all they would have to do is declare it their own unit property, and they could take it back," he said.
The only restrictions, he said, are space, or cost, or the possibility that some things, like the weathered old wood of a plywood memorial won't get through customs in the United States.
There are Army rules about what constitutes an "official" memorial, Brooks said. They involve the size of a unit authorized to be memorialized, or the types of action a Soldier must perform if he is to be individually memorialized.
But the memorials put up on base camps in Iraq are not official memorials put up by a committee. They are memorials put up by Soldiers for other Soldiers who knew them. They are not granite and bronze installations on dedicated space after years of lobbying, such as what might happen in Washington -- but are instead the humbler and maybe the more honest recognition of one warrior by another.
"What he did was important, and it's important to remember that they were here," Brooks said. "But we do what we can for the individuals that were here and made the ultimate sacrifice. Unfortunately, you can't get them all back, but you can take a photograph, you can take the plaques back. It's up to these units to do that. These people they have offered us the best they can -- this is small consolation -- but it's something."