By Donna Miles, American Forces Press ServiceDecember 13, 2006
FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska, Dec. 13, 2006 - The Arctic Wolves bid an emotional farewell to 36 of their own yesterday as they gathered here to dedicate the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team Memorial Wall.
Leaders from the unit joined about 25 family members of the fallen in the atrium of the high-tech Battle Command Training Center here to remember 26 Stryker Brigade troops and 10 soldiers from units attached the brigade during its deployment. Another 150 brigade soldiers just back from a 16-month deployment to Iraq watched the ceremony in an overflow room on a large-screen TV.
Col. Michael Shields, the brigade commander, acknowledged the "incredible price" his troops paid in Iraq. "These men and women paid the ultimate sacrifice in places like Mosul, Tal Afar, Rawa and Baghdad," he said. "They died serving their nation, their unit and, I think more accurately, their fellow soldiers," he said.
Those who died were among the small percentage of Americans who have served and fought the war on terror, he said. "While most Americans don't understand the great evil that exists, that threatens our very existence and the security of our children's future, these soldiers did," he said. "They were all volunteers."
Rather than focusing on how these soldiers died, Shields urged those at the ceremony to use it as an opportunity to celebrate how they lived. "This group of warriors consisted of hunters, fishermen, outdoorsmen, mountain climbers, snowboarders, skiers, musicians, cowboys, philosophers, athletes, pilots and so much more," he said.
"These soldiers were someone's best friend, leader, son, brother, fiancAfA, husband and dad," he said. "Several of them left children that will never know their father."
Chaplain (Maj.) Robert Nay opened the ceremony with an invocation expressing thanks for "these brave men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice" and asking for comfort for their families, friends and comrades.
Then Shields and Command Sgt. Maj. William Ulibarri, the brigade command sergeant major, unveiled the memorial, with 36 framed photos of the fallen. In front of the wall stood a memorial stand, with a pair of combat boots, Kevlar helmet, goggles and an M4A1 rifle with bayonet. Thirty-six dog tags with the names of the fallen hung from the rifle.
Nay explained the symbolism of the memorial and how it helps tell the story of those it honors.
"The memorial stand with the boots, weapon and helmet stand (is) alone, empty (to) remind us of the ultimate sacrifice," he said. The headgear represents the soldier's ability to think, react, learn and lead. The rifle symbolizes the battle soldier's face, and the cover on the bayonet, the peace they want. The boots are meant "to carry us wherever our country leads us," Nay said. The dog tags represent the personal aspect of the losses and the soldiers "who are loved and deeply missed ... and will never be forgotten," he said.
"The faces you see before you represent the human nature of war," Nay said. "These men and women remind us that freedom is not free and that it is their shed blood that allows our nation and, more specifically, our families, to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which is the American dream."
Troops attending yesterday's ceremony called it a fitting tribute to their fallen comrades and a lasting reminder of the sacrifices they made.
Among those at the ceremony was Sgt. Robert Sult, from 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, who lost four fellow soldiers in Iraq, including his roommate and best friend, Spc. Raymond Henry.
"I think of Henry every day. He meant so much to me. He was the best friend I ever had," Sult said. "We learned a lot from each other, and I know he can touch other people, too. On this memorial wall, he can still show people what it's like to serve his country and just do the right thing."
Sgt. 1st Class Cole Shepherd, who served in the brigade's rear detachment during the deployment, called putting together the memorial wall an act of healing for everyone involved and a way to serve those who didn't return home. Shepherd and three other soldiers took extra pains to make sure it was perfect, including making the frames for the photos at the post craft shop when the ones they bought simply didn't measure up.
"This represents what our lives are about in the Army and the ultimate sacrifice we make for the freedoms our friends and families enjoy every day," he said.
Sgt. David Ferguson, from 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, called the losses the unit took, particularly after the Army extended the unit's deployment by four months, devastating to the unit. "We were so close to coming back, so it hit us all really hard," he said.
But like many of his fellow Arctic Wolves, Ferguson said losing their buddies made them more committed to their mission. "It's really hard on you for awhile; it's kind of hard to get used to not seeing them anymore," he said. "But once you do start going back out (on missions), you remember that for the rest of the time, you're there for them, to fight for their honor."
After the ceremony, family members approached the wall, taking pictures and gathering with soldiers and commanders who knew their loved ones. Jesse Alcozer, father of Pfc. Christopher Alcozer, wore a "Vietnam Veteran" hat as he approached his son's photo and placed his hand on the corner of the wooden plaque. The 36 dog tags clinked as relatives rifled through them, looking for the name of their soldier. Families heard funny stories or memorable moments of their soldiers from those who had served with them in Iraq.
"As you pay tribute in your own way today, leave this hall with your head high, proud of these soldiers' service to their country," Shields told the families and his 172nd Stryker BCT soldiers in closing. "That is what these warriors would want you to do."
He recalled the saying that soldiers never truly die until they are forgotten. "Arctic Wolves, you will never be forgotten," he said.
(Donna Miles writes for the American Forces Press Service)