Latest News

On holiday weekend, troops find themselves a long way from home

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Army Sgt. 1st Class Charles Harley looked a little stunned when he was asked what he was going to do this holiday weekend.

"Is it Memorial Day weekend?" said Harley, 33, of Columbia, S.C. "I've just lost all track of time."

He was not alone. Most of the soldiers from the Army's 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division seemed to be suffering from the same holiday amnesia. But you really can't blame them. They're a long way from home.

Some soldiers say the numbing sameness of days that comes with post-combat duty in Iraq made them forget. Others say there's a sense that soldiers remain too close, emotionally and geographically, to the deaths of U.S. soldiers in the recent war. The 3rd Brigade, which led the charge into Baghdad, lost three soldiers during the war. A fourth died in a traffic accident during the reconstruction effort.

"Nobody wants to admit that it's Memorial Day," said Sgt. Joel Burger, 23, of Postville, Iowa, who has a friend who's recovering from wounds after being shot up at a traffic checkpoint during the war. "People don't want to look at it because we're still here."

The first Memorial Day was observed during a time of post-war reconstruction in the United States, in 1868 after the Civil War. The day was first known as Decoration Day, when families and friends decorated the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers with flowers. Poppies were favorites then.

The 3rd Brigade planned to take a day off Monday and play volleyball and basketball and hold a farewell dinner, with catered local Iraqi food.

"Don't read too much into the `farewell dinner' part of that. We're far from the `farewell' mode," said Capt. Tom McNew, 36, of Paint Rock, Texas, explaining that the brigade still doesn't know when it's returning home, only that it may not have a chance to have another gathering like this before it does.

"Instead of focusing on the negative aspect of fallen soldiers, we're going to try to celebrate their lives," McNew said.

Some soldiers said that after spending 11 of the past 14 months away from friends and family, they would look at the holiday as just another day away from home.

"Yeah, I know it's Memorial Day," said Spc. Laura Brown, 23, of Enterprise, Ala. "It's the day we were supposed to be back home."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-MEMORIALDAY