JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq — In words etched in stone, painted on concrete barriers, scribbled on hospital walls with magic markers, American troops in Iraq have followed a tradition as old as war itself: honoring their dead.
Now, as the United States prepares to dramatically decrease its military presence in Iraq this summer, American commanders are trying to decide what to do with the vast collection of plaques, street signs, and painted concrete barriers dedicated to the men and women who shed their blood in this desert country.
In the Vietnam War, units brought home their memorabilia and memorials when they rotated out of the country. When the U.S. closed down bases around Germany at the end of the Cold War, the memorabilia was also preserved.
Now, it's Iraq's turn. But preserving some of the memorials could prove a difficult task.
At Forward Operating Base Warrior in Kirkuk, a long row of 22 concrete blast barriers painted black greets visitors at a helicopter landing pad. On it, volunteers last year painted in yellow the names of almost all the 4,400 U.S. service members who died in Iraq – a piece of craftmanship that evokes the spirit of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington in its honest simplicity.
"I tried several times to walk down this wall and read every name, to say it in my head. It really makes an impact, and it's very hard to do," said Sgt. Kevin McCulley. "There's over 4,000 names on this wall, fathers, sons, daughters, wives. Everyone on this wall has a family."
McCulley was a combat medic during 2006 and 2007, a period that included the troop surge and the highest American casualties of the war. His boots crunch softly on the gravel as he walks along the wall, picking out names of people he knew.
First Lt. Ashley Henderson Huff, of Belle Mead, N.J., who was killed by a suicide bomber in a car in Mosul in 2006. McCulley rode with the black body bag back to the base, one hand resting on her as he prayed for a woman he met only in death.
Staff Sgt. Darrell R. Griffin Jr., a non-commissioned officer who cared deeply about his soldiers and was writing a philosphy book, killed by small arms fire near Balad in 2007.
Sgt. 1st Class Richard J. Henkes, who was strict with his platoon because he wanted to make sure everyone went home alive, killed in Mosul by a roadside bomb.
Since it was made, troops at the base have taken it on themselves to take care of the memorial. U.S. Navy Yeoman 1st Class Gloria Hill has been coming in her off hours with a friend to pull up weeds in front of the barriers, known as T-walls.
"When I look at this wall, I just think that those are someone's kids," she said. "They should be honored. They lost their life."
T-walls tend to crumble or crack in transport, so it's unlikely the memorial at FOB Warrior will be shipped back to the United States.
The memorial at the hospital at Joint Operating Base Balad will pose another challenge. Thousands of wounded American serviceman came through here to be flown out to treatment in Germany – and in the "Heroes Lounge," they were encouraged to write their feelings on the walls.
"2 Iraq tours, 2 Happy Hospital Visits!" wrote Spc. Schamach. The words "Make that 3" were scribbled in later below.
"We fight as one, we die as one," someone else wrote, under the names of four Marines who died in 2007.
Another reads, "In Memory of Spc. Tony Knier. You will always live inside of us, the ones who knew you. Rest in peace brother."
These messages scribbled by the wounded fresh out of battle are often the first step in recovery, said Lt. Col. Connie Day, deputy commander of the hospital.
"Some of them go through every emotion possible. You see denial, you see anger, certainly you see sadness. But it's all there, and I think it's all part of the healing process."
High-resolution photographs of the walls will be submitted to a museum – possibly the U.S. Air Force Museum in Ohio or the museum at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington. There's even been talk of trying to get the wall or the photos into the Smithsonian.
Other memorials are challenging but not impossible to move.
At FOB Normandy, near the former insurgent stronghold of Muqdadiyah, Lt. Col. Adam Rocke has been figuring out how to ship home a memorial to 1st Lt. Kile G. West, for his mother's sake.
West died in 2007 when his Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb. In his honor, West's men erected a concrete block about three feet high and two feet wide with a plaque. To the right is a 60 mm mortar tube representing West's job – a field artillery officer who called in mortars to help men on the ground.
West's mother Nanette always wondered about the circumstances of her son's death. She got a job with a contractor in Iraq and went to the base where her son was stationed.
Rocke was there to greet her. At the memorial, they knelt in prayer and remembered Kile West.
"I made a solemn oath to her that I would take that memorial and get it back to the States," Rocke said. "From that moment on I knew that we were doing the right thing. And it just made us feel really, really good."
Nanette West wrote in an e-mail to AP that they have already packed up her son's monument.
"That is a good thing," she wrote. "If they were not going to ship it back ... I was fully prepared to steal it somehow (well at least the plaque on the top)."
In April, the military ordered all units to catalogue and collect their memorials as bases close down. The plan is to eventually ship them back to the United States.
The campaign to bring memorials home owes a lot to Maj. Linda Bass. Richard Henkes – the same man that McCulley pointed out on the Kirkuk memorial – was her brother, and he died in 2006.
Bass had served a tour in Iraq, but her parents could not face losing another child and asked her to quit.
Eventually, she went back to Iraq. It was a way to pay her respects to her brother in a way he would have understood – by serving her country.
She found that her brother's unit had dedicated a street to him on FOB Marez in Mosul. She brought the sign home to her family, and her father hung it in front of their house.
From that decision unfolded a lengthy campaign in which Bass lobbied everyone she could think of – the White House Commission on Remembrance, her congressmen, the U.S. Central Command – to come up with a uniform way to bring home these memorials.
"Those soldiers, those Marines, those airmen, those sailors, those were the last people to see your loved one alive, they were the last people who talked with them, who walked with them, and I think they put those memorials up because we are a family, the military is a family," said Bass.
In many ways, the memorials reflect how permanent the Iraq war once seemed. The memorials "became permanent fixtures rather than something that would be here for a short time and then go home," Bass said.
In Baghdad, thousands of troops have gone through Hodge Hall, a facility that trains troops to look for roadside bombs. It was named after Spc. Jeremy M. Hodge, of Ridgeway, Ohio, who was killed when a bomb went off near his Humvee in 2005 as he was trying to clear a route used by American troops.
The 'Hodge Hall' sign was removed and is to be shipped to the U.S. and presented to his family.
"We trained maybe 40 different units, and they all recognize Hodge Hall and recognize his name, so it's a lasting impression," said Col. Robert Phillips, who served with Hodge back in 2005. "His family had no knowledge of these things. So what it does is transfer that memory back from the military to that family."
In the end, what makes these memorials so important to the men and women who built them is that they stand for a life lost in a cause that they hope matters.
"It's a very simple monument," said McCulley, gesturing to the black-painted slabs of concrete in Kirkuk. "But in my opinion it really shows the scope of what we've sacrificed to make Iraq as stable as it is right now."