Joint Base Balad hosts Memorial Day Ceremony

Story and Photo by Cpl. Rich Barkemeyer
13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) Public Affairs

JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq — For many, Memorial Day is a time for barbecues and family picnics, and the unofficial start to the summer. For those deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the day takes on a much deeper meaning.

At Joint Base Balad, Iraq, service members gathered at the East Circuit Gym May 31 for a Memorial Day ceremony to pay tribute to those who have lost their lives in U.S. military operations.

During the ceremony, hosted by the 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) and the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, representatives from the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard spoke about personal experiences and their feelings about Memorial Day.

“At Joint Base Balad, we gather to honor those who gave their lives in service to our nation,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Craig A. Franklin, commanding general of the 332nd AEW. “To date, 5,462 service members have lost their lives in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. We must never forget the sacrifices of the women and men of our armed forces, and we must carry on their unfinished business.”

In an emotional address, Air Force 1st Lt. Kirsten C. Coty, executive officer to the vice wing commander for the 332nd AEW, spoke about her friend, 1st Lt. Joseph D. Helton, Jr., who was killed Sept. 8, 2009. Helton, a Monroe, Ga., native, died when his convoy was struck by a roadside bomb outside the gates of Camp Taji. 

“Joe was just 24 years old, and he left behind three sisters and a mother and father who loved him, hundreds of friends who admired him, and thousands of troops who respected him,” she said. “Joe is a hero; a hero who gave his life to something bigger than himself. Every day is another day without those people we loved, and those people who sat beside us. We must prove worthy of the sacrifices these fallen troops have made, recognize our grief, and make our brothers and sisters proud.”

The Memorial Day ceremony also gave some service members the chance to reflect on the contributions made by previous generations.

“During Christmas of my first enlistment, I lost my grandfather, who was a World War II veteran,” said Staff Sgt. Alfred Salazar, a force protection noncommissioned officer with the 13th SC(E), and a Houston native. “I never really got the chance to ask him what his Army was like, or how things were when he was fighting, so I always try to take some time and remember him on Memorial Day.”

“It feels more real,”Salazar said, with regard to spending Memorial Day in Iraq. “I had never been this close to a dangerous situation before. It means more being here. It also feels more important to be in this room with other service members.”

President Obama issued a proclamation calling for all Americans to observe a national moment of remembrance at 3 p.m. local time, and directing that all American flags be flown at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day.

“This Memorial Day, we express our deepest appreciation to the men and women in uniform who gave their last full measure of devotion so we might live in freedom,” Obama said in his proclamation, which was read during the ceremony. “We cherish their memory and pray for the peace for which they laid down their lives. We mourn with the Families and friends of those we have lost, and hope they find comfort in knowing their loved ones died with honor.”

During the ceremony, Franklin and Brig. Gen. Paul L. Wentz, commanding general of the 13th SC(E), and a Mansfield, Ohio, native, unveiled a monument meant to recognize the contributions from all five branches of the U.S. military. Shaped like a protective T-wall barrier, the monument will stand in All American Square at JBB.

“This is such an important day and time to reflect, and we needed something that would honor all the branches that have been here,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Mark D. Joseph, command sergeant major of the 13th SC(E), and a Lake Charles, La., native. “We picked a T-wall because it’s something that’s so familiar around here, and it really symbolizes the work that everyone’s done. Even building the (monument) was a joint project. It was built by an Airman and painted by a Soldier.”

“If we’re honest, most of us aren’t here for the politics or the cause,” Coty said. “We’re here to do what we can to protect our families back home, and to stand with our second Families — the men and women who are here beside us.”


news photo
Brig. Gen. Paul L. Wentz (left), commanding general of the 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), and Brig. Gen. Craig A. Franklin, commanding general of the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, unveil the Joint Base Balad Memorial Day monument during a ceremony May 31 at the East Circuit Gym. The monument, which is shaped like a protective T-wall barrier, pays tribute to service members from all five branches of the U.S. military who have lost their lives in U.S. military operations. (U.S. Army photo by Cpl. Rich Barkemeyer)