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Decisions due on Iraq memorials

They are troops' tributes to fallen colleagues. As a pullback nears, some items pose a challenge.

JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq - In words etched in stone, painted on concrete barriers, scribbled on hospital walls with markers, American troops in Iraq have followed a tradition as old as war itself: honoring their dead.

Now, as the United States prepares to dramatically decrease its military presence in Iraq this summer, American commanders are trying to decide what to do with the vast collection of plaques, street signs, and painted concrete barriers dedicated to the men and women who shed their blood in this desert country.

In the Vietnam War, units brought home their memorabilia and memorials when they rotated out of the country. When the United States closed down bases around Germany at the end of the Cold War, the memorabilia was also preserved.

Now, it's Iraq's turn. But preserving some of the memorials could prove difficult.

At Forward Operating Base Warrior in Kirkuk, a long row of 22 concrete blast barriers painted black greets visitors at a helicopter landing pad. On it, volunteers last year painted in yellow the names of almost all of the 4,400 U.S. service members who have died in Iraq - a piece of craftsmanship that evokes the spirit of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington in its honest simplicity.

"I tried several times to walk down this wall and read every name, to say it in my head. It really makes an impact, and it's very hard to do," said Sgt. Kevin McCulley. "There's over 4,000 names on this wall, fathers, sons, daughters, wives. Everyone on this wall has a family."

McCulley was a combat medic during the U.S. troop surge of 2006 and 2007, a period that saw the highest toll of American casualties of the war. His boots crunch softly on the gravel as he walks along the wall, picking out names of people he knew.

First Lt. Ashley Henderson Huff, of Belle Mead, N.J., who was killed by a suicide bomber in a car in Mosul in 2006. McCulley rode with the black body bag back to the base, one hand resting on her as he prayed for a woman he met only in death.

Staff Sgt. Darrell R. Griffin Jr., a noncommissioned officer who cared deeply about his soldiers and was writing a philosophy book, killed by small-arms fire near Balad in 2007.

Sgt. First Class Richard J. Henkes, who was strict with his platoon because he wanted to make sure everyone went home alive, killed in Mosul by a roadside bomb.

Since it was made, troops at the base have taken it on themselves to take care of the memorial. U.S. Navy Yeoman First Class Gloria Hill has been coming in her off hours with a friend to pull up weeds in front of the barriers, known as T-walls.

"When I look at this wall, I just think that those are someone's kids," she said. "They should be honored. They lost their life."

T-walls tend to crumble or crack in transport, so it's unlikely the memorial at FOB Warrior will be shipped to the United States.

The memorial at the hospital at Joint Operating Base Balad will pose another challenge. Thousands of wounded American servicemen came through to be flown out to treatment in Germany - and in the "Heroes Lounge," they were encouraged to write their feelings on the walls.

"2 Iraq tours, 2 Happy Hospital Visits!" wrote Spec. Schamach. The notation "Make that 3" was scribbled in later below.

"We fight as one, we die as one," someone else wrote, under the names of four Marines who died in 2007.

Another reads, "In Memory of Spc. Tony Knier. You will always live inside of us, the ones who knew you. Rest in peace brother."

These messages scribbled by the wounded fresh out of battle are often the first step in recovery, said Lt. Col. Connie Day, deputy commander of the hospital.

"Some of them go through every emotion possible. You see denial, you see anger, certainly you see sadness. But it's all there, and I think it's all part of the healing process."

High-resolution photographs of the walls will be submitted to a museum - possibly the U.S. Air Force Museum in Ohio. There's even been talk of trying to get the wall or the photos into the Smithsonian.

In April, the military ordered all units to catalog and collect their memorials as bases close down. The plan is to eventually ship them to the United States.

In the end, what makes these memorials so important to the men and women who built them is that they stand for a life lost in a cause that they hope matters.

"It's a very simple monument," said McCulley, gesturing to the black-painted slabs of concrete in Kirkuk. "But in my opinion it really shows the scope of what we've sacrificed to make Iraq as stable as it is right now."