The bell tolled 64 times for 64 dead. As the vibrations from one ring settled, another sounded, marking the ebb and flow of an emotional tide for those of us gathered to observe Memorial Day on Forward Operating Base Justice in Baghdad.
It was 2007 and I was a lieutenant colonel commanding Dagger Brigade’s Task Force Justice. Our mission was to stabilize Kadhimiya, a part of the city that holds tremendous religious significance and thus a source of violence between the Shia and Sunni.
We hadn’t given much thought to having Iraqi colleagues attend the traditional Memorial Day services until they started being butchered for helping the “American enemy.”
But at the height of sectarian cleansing in 2006 and 2007, Iraq was averaging more than 3,000 monthly casualties. Americans stood between violent factions in a civil war with trusted Iraqi partners — interpreters and other locals who supported us — by our sides. Those Iraqis took extraordinary risks and they did so almost entirely alone, unable to tell friends and family about their work for fear of creating unnecessary risks. They were our window into Iraqi culture. They kept us alive in Baghdad, which was then the most dangerous city in the world.
That Memorial Day, we welcomed our Iraqi partners to our remembrance ceremony and they shared in our loss. Insurgents had killed Akeel (who masked his identity with the patrol name Jack) because he was one of our key interpreters. Militia murdered Nadal, a base store owner, because he supported “infidels.”
Together, Iraqis and Americans honored and remembered our friends. We set up a display with photos of Jack and Nadal alongside photos of Col. Thomas Felts and Cpl. Justin Garcia, both killed by a bomb just before Christmas the year before. Two pairs of military desert boots stood before two rifles, bayonets down, helmets atop the butt stocks, Iraqi and American flags in the background.
Each soldier paid tribute in their own way. A quartet of soldiers sang religious and patriotic songs. Others laid wreaths to honor the dead. A lieutenant read President George W. Bush’s Memorial Day proclamation and the brigade chaplain, David Mikkelson, read scripture about sacrifice (John 15:13). Then the bell tolled. And after each toll, a noncommissioned officer read the names of the dead, not by rank, but by date of death, honoring the tradition of officers and NCOs serving side by side with their soldiers. That Memorial Day, for the first time, the list of names included our fallen Iraqi friends and partners.
Looking out over the standing-room-only crowd, wearing my mask of command, I addressed the soldiers and Iraqi civilians. My job was to give them time to mourn losses and then inspire them to leave the gates again and risk their own lives. As I drafted my remarks, I knew I had to acknowledge our shared losses, but I also wanted to emphasize our shared bonds — the friendships we’d formed, the innocent people we’d protected, and the downward trend in violence that we’d helped facilitate. As the event came to a close, an NCO outside the building commanded the honor guard to fire. Three volleys launched into the air, followed by a bugler playing the melancholic Taps.
Following the service, soldiers and Iraqis wandered outside or lingered, sharing private memories or talking about the next mission in hushed tones. I thanked the chaplain, the quartet and other soldiers and Iraqis who helped organize the service, and went back to my office.
Memorial Day is always a vital waypoint, an opportunity to remember the sacrifices our brothers and sisters have made. In combat, it has to serve a different purpose. It has to shore up our resolve and remind us to keep going. Continue the mission for Tom. Do it for Akeel. Then we gear up, venture out, and keep going, side-by-side.
Steve Miska, author of Baghdad Underground Railroad: Saving American Allies in Iraq, is a retired Army Infantry Colonel and former Director for Iraq on the National Security Council. He advocates for interpreters and other allies in conflict zones.
Featured Image: Commander of Troop A, 1st Squadron, 113th Cavalry Regiment, Task Force Redhorse, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, Task Force Red Bulls, U.S. Army Capt. Jason Knueven, of Inwood, Iowa, grasps the dog-tags of a fallen hero as U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Travis Bentz, A Troop’s acting first sergeant of West Des Moines, Iowa, pays his respects during a memorial ceremony at Joint Combat Outpost Pul-e Sayad, Afghanistan, April 25, 2011. U.S. Army Staff Sgt. James A. Justice, a squad leader for 1st Platoon, Troop A, of Grimes, Iowa, was killed in action in Kapisa province during a recovery mission of a downed aircraft April 23.