On Base, a Plea to Give Each Death Its Due
Twenty soldiers deployed to Iraq from this Army base were killed in May, a monthly high. That same month, the base announced a change in how it would honor its dead: instead of units holding services after each death, they would be held collectively once a month.
The anger and hurt were immediate. Soldiers’ families and veterans protested the change as cold and logistics-driven. Critics online said the military was trying to repress bad news about deaths. By mid-June, the base had delayed the plan.
[Its commander, Lt. Gen. Charles H. Jacoby, was expected to decide Wednesday whether to go through with it.]
“If I lost my husband at the beginning of the month, what do you do, wait until the end of the month?” asked Toni Shanyfelt, who said her husband was serving one of multiple tours in Iraq. “I don’t know if it’s more convenient for them, or what, but that’s insane.”
Military historians and scholars say the proposal and its fallout highlight the tender questions facing the armed forces as casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan mount, and some soldiers and their families come to expect more from military bases than in past conflicts.
During Vietnam and Korea, the historians say, many bases were places for training soldiers and shipping them out, rarely to see them return, with memorial services uncommon. Now, in the age of the all-volunteer force, the base has become the center of community. The Army and other branches have fostered the idea that military service is as much about education, job training and belonging to a community as national defense.
“It wasn’t considered the Army’s business in any of the other wars to conduct these services,” said Alan H. Archambault, director of the Fort Lewis Military Museum, which is supported by the Army. “It was the hometowns of the soldiers that died that had these. Now I think the Army bases are trying to be the hometowns.”
Army officials said the idea to hold monthly services reflected a need to find balance between honoring the dead and the practical reality that the services take time to plan, including things like coordinating rifle salutes and arranging receptions for family members who attend.
“As much as we would like to think otherwise, I am afraid that with the number of soldiers we now have in harm’s way, our losses will preclude us from continuing to do individual memorial ceremonies,” Brig. Gen. William Troy, who was the interim commander at Fort Lewis at the time, wrote in an e-mail message announcing the policy in May.
The Army also emphasizes that the ceremonies held on bases are in addition to those held by the soldier’s unit overseas as well as private family services, which usually include military honor guards. Those services would not be affected if Fort Lewis moved to a monthly schedule.
Fort Lewis, the third-largest Army base in the nation, has about 10,000 of its 28,000 soldiers deployed overseas, a majority of them in Stryker brigades trained specially for urban combat. Several other major bases, including Fort Hood in Texas, the largest, already hold services monthly. Some hold them even less frequently.
“There is no Army-wide policy to have any memorial services,” a spokeswoman for the Army, Maj. Cheryl Phillips, said in an e-mail message. “Commanders make the call. Several installations have conducted services for each individual soldier and now have begun to roll them into a quarterly service because, alas, the casualty numbers are rising.”
At many bases, local elected officials attend the services. At Fort Hood, whose First Cavalry Division has 19,000 soldiers overseas, many of these officials are veterans with ties to the base or the Army.
“It really is important that we keep it scheduled and that these people all have it on their calendars,” said Diane Battaglia, a spokeswoman for Fort Hood.
Ms. Battaglia said the monthly services helped bring families together, a point also made by General Troy at Fort Lewis.
“I see this as a way of sharing the heavy burdens our spouses and rear detachments bear, while giving our fallen warriors the respect they deserve,” General Troy wrote in the e-mail message. “It will also give the families of the fallen the opportunity to bond with one another, as they see others who share their grief.”
Ms. Battaglia said the Fort Hood soldiers received individual eulogies at the monthly services. “It has worked phenomenally well,” she said.
At Fort Lewis, however, tension has been evident; changing a ritual, especially as the death toll is rising, strikes some as disrespectful.
“By reducing it to once a month, I think they’re taking away from us,” said Staff Sgt. Jason Angelle. “Soldiers deserve individual honors.”
Sue Rothwell, who runs a diner popular among soldiers that is just outside the main gate, said she had long opposed the war in Iraq but had recently made a public point of honoring those who serve in it. Several weeks ago she started putting the last names of soldiers who had died on the reader board outside the restaurant, called Galloping Gertie’s, under the heading, “The numbers have names.”
Ms. Rothwell said she opposed monthly services. “Individuals gave their lives,” she said. “But if you have services just once a month, the other 29 days you don’t have to think about it. Well, isn’t that convenient.”
For now, at least, those who die are eulogized as hometown heroes, either individually or by division.
“We owe them the highest gratitude a nation can give,” Lt. Col. John Pettit, a chaplain, said at a memorial service in July for two soldiers. Sgt. Joel A. Dahl and Cpl. Victor A. Garcia were killed by small-arms fire in Iraq.
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