Forget the BBQs, Remember Baghdad

Why Memorial Day means so much more than a day off.

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I can still see the faces of some of the men and women in the United States armed forces serving in Iraq. Some were smiling, some grimacing, most stared with piercing eyes from behind black shades. Many were hues of brown, most were white. They all deserve to be remembered.

It was October 2003. I was working on democracy initiatives with the U.S. Agency for International Development and had been sent to Iraq to help coordinate the first elections to be held after the invasion. Like other members of the U.S. government, I was living in the infamous Green Zone, the heavily guarded four-square-mile center of international presence in Baghdad. It was close quarters, relatively speaking, and I became acquainted with a few soldiers. In all of my years working with the government, I had had multiple interactions with the military, but it was in Iraq that I first internalized the lives, experience and service of American soldiers in a very personal way.

Our encounters were filled with surprises. Over meals in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces, I learned mundane facts like their ages—19, 21, 26, 42, 48—and was stunned by the extremes. They shared with me pictures of families and the cell phone number to Pizza Ali's, along with instructions on how to safely retrieve an ordered pizza at Assassin's Gate, a primary point of entry into the Green Zone. We all counted the days until our return home. I kept my opposition to the war to myself.

Hotel Al-Rasheed, where I was staying, was bombed in the early morning after my first night in the Green Zone. After that startling welcome, rocket-propelled grenades periodically blasted parts of the protected area. And it was during those tense moments of crisis that I gained a real perspective on the American soldier. I witnessed selflessness, care, valor and, in some instances, fear. American soldiers protected me, along with many others.

Since leaving Baghdad, I have scoured photos, read announcements and listened to news reports, ravenously searching for information on the soldiers I befriended during my time there. I often ponder their fates, and wonder which of them are still alive.

We have lost more than 4,000 Americans in the war in Iraq. Over 30,000 have been wounded in action since the start of U.S. military operations there. Fatalities related to the war in Afghanistan now stand at just under 500.

Memorial Day for me is no longer about the beginning of summer, a day off, barbecues and swimming pool openings. It has become a day to put all of my efforts into ensuring that the faces of those soldiers I met nearly five years ago remain forever vivid in my memory.

We have become a nation divided by those who watch a two-front war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the soldiers, airmen, sailors, Marines and their families who face a sixth year of sacrifice. It is a time to honor their sacrifices with more than a thank you, a parade, or even a flag on our porch.

As we begin the remembrance this Memorial Day of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in wars both past and present, we should reflect on policies that will make a living memorial for generations to come.

There are any number of legislative initiatives in which we can be involved to advocate for the health and well-being of members of our military abroad and at home. One area worthy of support is the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, otherwise known as the New GI Bill (S.22), and sponsored by Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). The bill seeks to build on the opportunity that was given to our WWII veterans, who are often referred to as the "greatest generation," by expanding educational and training benefits to service members.