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From Baghdad: Summer Holidays

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Heidi Osterhout
  • Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq
(Editor's Note: Lt. Col. Heidi Osterhout is deployed for six months as the deputy legal advisor supporting the Office of Security Cooperation mission, based in Baghdad, Iraq. This is her second deployment to Iraq.)

There are several surreal moments during deployments -- the blast of hot air that hits you for the first time as the C-130 doors open, sand storms that sting your eyes and taste bad, taking cover because of alarms or incoming, rolling to the floor with your pillow without realizing it until you're halfway on the ground when an alarm sounds, laughing about silliness that only deployed people understand, and holidays away from home.

Holidays are perhaps the most surreal. You're reminded that it isn't Groundhog Day. People at home are celebrating whether you're there or not. Life is, in fact, proceeding in spite of you.

This past Memorial Day started with a second day within one week to report late -- a luxury we almost never enjoy. The surreal began at breakfast. The dining facility looked like the Fourth of July. Red, white, and blue was everywhere -- streamers, pictures, and big fluffy decorations hung from the ceiling. But the surreal didn't stop there -- it peaked at our 9 a.m. memorial service.

At about 8:45 a.m. we started lining up outside, each trying to find trees to stand under to avoid the sun. It was hot already, somewhere in the 90s I'd guess. Sweat dripped down your back within minutes of walking outside, but you really only noticed it if you stand still. We stood around chatting and joking until the ceremony began. Most people avoided looking at the two large posters of our fallen, prominently displayed on either side of the ceremony grounds. We knew we'd enter the solemn realm soon enough. The pictures of these fallen were placed on the posters by people within the unit who knew them personally.

Even after the five-minute warning, we kept chatting. The ceremony appropriately began with a prayer that ended by thanking God for the gifts he's given us--life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Then, the honor guard, made up of our own enlisted folks from all of the services, marched forward with the colors. When our flag came forward, taps sounded. No one worried about sweat rolling down their backs anymore. Indeed, everyone experienced chills at that moment.

As the flag raised to full glory, then lowered to its resting spot honoring our fallen, I experienced perhaps the most surreal moment of my life. Here we stood in this place that claimed so many American lives and permanently injured so many more, sharing the moment with members of all of our services as well as civilians from various countries, honoring the fallen with a moment of our time before running off to work. Time stood still.

The ceremony continued with a wreath laying ceremony, a poem, another prayer, and then an opportunity to place a small flag in front of one of the posters. We stood afterward, no longer chatting. Instead, as a group, we each stared intently at every one of the pictures of our fallen. I think we each tried to engrave every face squarely into our memories so they are never forgotten.

Everything we do here is done with the memory of the fallen and injured. Their pictures line our walls, lest we start to forget. If we can't make this country stable, all they sacrificed is lost. Helping Iraq with Foreign Military Sales and guiding them to protect themselves is a necessary part of that stability. Thank you to those brothers and sisters who gave their all. And to the families who still deal with the loss, especially on this day.

Being there that day was surreal. I stood on the same dry, hot sand as our lost brothers and sisters. I stood staring at the same flag that draped our lost brothers' and sisters' caskets when they returned home for the final time. I stood in Baghdad, remembering Americans who lost their lives here fighting for what they believed in. I will continue to stand on that same ground and remember our fallen every day of this deployment. I know we will reflect on similar thoughts during our Fourth of July ceremonies, again remembering the lost lives and understanding the importance of providing stability for this post-conflict nation. It is surreal.