Troops honor fallen soldiers

Posted: Tuesday, May 26, 2009

BAGHDAD - American troops on Memorial Day honored their fallen on two battlefields, one war winding down and another ramping up. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military remembered the toll so far on the troops - more than 4,900 dead - with the outcome still unclear.

In Iraq, soldiers and Marines stood solemnly during a playing of Taps at Baghdad's Camp Victory. They saluted a memorial of a single helmet propped on a rifle beside a pair of boots.

Thousands of miles away, in the Afghan capital of Kabul, soldiers left mementos at a similar memorial for two comrades who recently died.

"Memorial Day for us is intensely personal," Gen. David McKiernan, the outgoing U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told a crowd at Camp Eggers. The training command based there has lost 70 soldiers since last Memorial Day.

"It is the empty seat in the mess hall, the battle buddy who is no longer here, or the friend who did not return from patrol. And it is the commitment to carry on with the mission in their honor," McKiernan said.

In Iraq, long the main focus of America's "Global War on Terror," the loss has been no less bitter.

"We grieve their loss and we smile at their memory," Brig. Gen. Peter C. Bayer Jr. told a crowd of about 100 at Camp Victory on the western outskirts of Baghdad.

But after six years of war and 4,300 dead, the end is in sight in Iraq.

America's combat role in the long and painful conflict is to finish by September 2010. Most of the 130,000 troops are expected to go home next year as the U.S. shifts military resources to Afghanistan.

As a first step, American troops are to pull out of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities by the end of next month, leaving security in the hands of Iraq's own soldiers and police.

It remains unclear, however, whether Iraqi forces are up to the task. Violence may increase.

Bayer reminded soldiers Monday that the Iraq war may be winding down but is not over. At least 18 U.S. troops have died in Iraq this month - eight of them by hostile fire.

"The message is the mission continues," Bayer said. "We still have an insurgency here, just as we have an active insurgency in Afghanistan."

At Camp Victory, Staff Sgt. Bienvenido Celestino, 43, stood by the makeshift memorial, taking a moment to remember those who served and died during his three deployments in Iraq.

"It's a very painful experience," said Celestino of Killeen, Texas. "It is something that is always with you ... whether you are here in Iraq or not."

American troops in Afghanistan, however, now face a growing war against a revived Taliban that has regained much of the ground that it lost to the first U.S.-led offensive in 2001.

While the outlook for U.S. troops in Iraq appears somewhat brighter, there is a growing sense that the war in Afghanistan is not going America's way.

In 2008, 151 U.S. soldiers died in Afghanistan, up from 111 the year before. At least 48 U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan so far this year

With the war going badly, McKiernan was replaced this month by Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who led the Special Operations command that was widely credited with breaking the back of al-Qaida in Iraq.

An additional 21,000 U.S. troops have started arriving in Afghanistan as part of President Barack Obama's plan to bolster troop strength enough to push back the resurgent Taliban. Officials have said they expect more attacks and more fighting as the new troops take up positions.

At the Camp Eggers ceremony, soldiers wearing khaki, camouflage and blue blazers gathered to salute their latest dead comrades - 1st Lt. Roslyn Schulte, or Roz, from Missouri and Shawn Pine, a former Army Ranger who was working as a contractor to train Afghan soldiers.

Schulte and Pine died last week when their vehicle hit a bomb on the road from Camp Eggers to Bagram Air Field for an intelligence-sharing conference, said Sgt. Chantell Smith.

Soldiers stood and saluted, then walked in small groups to a memorial for Schulte and Pine and left mementos of those who died. Smith hung Schulte's dog tags over the dead woman's rifle.

Fellow soldiers described Schulte as an energetic, friendly soldier. They recalled how her kindness shone through in small actions, like getting the instructions on over-the-counter drugs she handed out to Afghans translated into the local language.

"She was vivacious, bubbly and had this zeal for life," Smith said. "She had a passion for people who were less fortunate than her, and at that age that was impressive. I know that I was not like that at 25."

Smith, who has been in Afghanistan about six months, said she won't ever think of Memorial Day the same way again.

"Some people have died prior to you and the unfortunate thing is that some people may die after you," she said. "I'll never go back home and take this just as another holiday that I'm off, just another time to have a cookout. ... I will truly see it as a holiday to honor fallen comrades."

At Camp Victory, Sgt. Porter Washington, 38, of Huntington, W.Va., said he was finishing up his first - and likely only - deployment to Iraq.

A common sign-off Washington hears these days between soldiers leaving Iraq: "See you in Afghanistan."

• Vogt reported from Kabul, Carter from Baghdad.



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