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On Memorial Day in Iraq, musings on a war winding down

CAMP VICTORY, Iraq — With heads bowed beneath a palace dome still etched with the initials of Saddam Hussein, dozens of U.S. service members paid tribute Monday to Americans killed in action not only in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan and in wars of the past.

Officers presented a Memorial Day wreath, a bugler played "Taps" and a lieutenant general spoke about how "little compares to the loss of a brother in arms." Soldiers in uniform and contractors in work boots said the nearly 4,400 Americans who've died in Iraq since 2003 weren't faceless statistics: They were commanders, friends, family.

For some of the troops who gathered at Camp Victory in Baghdad, it was difficult to discuss individual losses, even now that combat deaths have tapered off and the war here is eclipsed by the bloodshed in Afghanistan, where the number of troops killed in action just passed the 1,000 mark.

"It's too personal," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Bien Covita, 34, of San Jose, Calif., looking away as he declined to discuss the fallen service member on his mind. He added that he wished that Americans would view Memorial Day as "more than just a day off work. We sacrifice every day for them to sleep comfortably."

Other soldiers said they missed the cookouts and camping trips of Memorial Days in the United States. However, they, too, worried that the holiday is losing some of its traditional meaning at a time when thousands of service members are still deployed in the Middle East.

"For people back home, all they see is a four-day weekend and the official start of summer," said Sgt. Joseph Castro, 29, of Guam, from C Company, Special Troops Battalion, III Corps, out of Ft. Hood, Texas. This is his third deployment. "For us, there are no weekends. Today means more to me; sometimes people have to be reminded."

Speeches at the ceremony never mentioned American contractors, who've assumed increased responsibilities with the drawdown of U.S. forces. The Obama administration plans to have just 50,000 troops remaining in Iraq by the end of summer, though the lack of a stable Iraqi government threatens to delay that goal.

At least 463 American and allied contractors have died since 2003, according to the website, which compiles official death announcements.

Kevin Decker, 54, of Colorado Springs, and Paul Woods, 58, of Detroit, said they reflected Monday on the "blessing" of staying alive in their perilous jobs as convoy drivers on roads that are still littered with roadside bombs.

"Every time we come up this way, we see improvements: lights, roadside fuel stations, checkpoints," said Woods, who's been in Iraq for a year and a half. "It's getting better."

"I don't think it's forgotten. I don't think it'll ever be forgotten," added Decker, who wears a necklace of good luck charms to mark his three years in Iraq.

Army Brig. Gen. Donald Currier of Folsom, Calif., just outside Sacramento, said he remembered each of the 14 soldiers from the National Guard's 49th Military Police Brigade who died during the last deployment in 2005-06.

Currier's eyes grew wet as he mentioned one particularly beloved guardsman: Sgt. 1st Class Isaac S. Lawson of Sacramento, who was killed at age 35 in a roadside bombing in Baghdad. They were close, Currier said, and the anniversary of his death was near: June 5, 2006.

"It's a particularly hard time of year for us," Currier said.

The brigade hasn't suffered combat deaths on this tour, but there've been two suicides, which Currier said were reminders of the rigors of deployment even as the war is winding down and the public eye turns to Afghanistan.

"Clearly, there's an awareness deficit in the U.S. public, and that's OK," Currier said. "We're bringing this to a close, and our service members have positioned Iraqis to take over. I think the American public should pay more attention to Afghanistan — it's where our soldiers are in harm's way."

Currier paused. Soldiers around him tucked into cakes decorated with military insignia. Some snapped photos of themselves near ceremonial wreaths.

"Still, it would be nice if people remembered we're still here," Currier said with a smile.


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