Fort Lewis to consolidate memorials for dead

Fort Lewis, which this month has suffered its worst losses of the war, will no longer conduct individual memorial ceremonies for soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Instead, the post will hold one ceremony for all soldiers killed each month, the Fort Lewis acting commanding general, Brig. Gen. William Troy, wrote in a memo to commanders and staff last week.

“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,” Troy wrote in the memo, according to a copy obtained by United for Peace Pierce County and posted on the group’s Web site. A post spokesman confirmed the policy change Tuesday. It will start in June.

There are 10,000 Fort Lewis troops in Iraq, more than at any other time since the March 2003 invasion. The post has reported 16 soldiers killed there so far in May, by far the most in any month of the war. The previous worst month was December 2004, when nine soldiers were killed, including six in the Mosul chow hall bombing. In all overseas deployments since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, 124 Fort Lewis soldiers have died.

In his memo dated May 22, Troy said he asked the post’s senior chaplain, Col. Jack Van Dyken, to work out the details of the new policy.

“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,” Troy wrote. “It will also give the families of the fallen the opportunity to bond with one another, as they see others who share their grief.”

Other Army posts already consolidate soldier memorials into one or two ceremonies per month.

At Fort Carson, Colo., they are held every other Thursday afternoon in a post chapel, a spokeswoman said.

At Fort Hood, Texas, the 4th Infantry Division has been holding a monthly ceremony since at least 2004. The division has lost more than 130 soldiers in two deployments to Iraq.

“We do schedule them, and unfortunately we do have them every month,” said Sgt. 1st Class Damian Steptore, a division spokesman.

Van Dyken on Tuesday said the change reflects the reality that Fort Lewis, for the next several months at least, will likely be called upon to memorialize soldiers killed in action. Two Stryker brigades of about 4,000 soldiers each will be fighting in Iraq until October, when one of them is scheduled to return from a 15-month tour.

“This is not an intent to streamline the process or in any way detract from honoring the soldiers,” Van Dyken said. “It’s just being cognizant of the fact that when you have this many, the time involved in doing each one individually is just prohibitive.”

Until now Fort Lewis has held memorial ceremonies for those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan on a case-by-case basis, usually one or two soldiers at a time.

Post spokesman Joseph Piek said each ceremony requires significant planning and coordination by the rear detachments of the deployed units, particularly if a soldier’s family comes to the post for the event.

Under the new policy the Fort Lewis headquarters staff will take on much of that work.

Army life is replete with ceremonies that mark promotions, changes of command, awards, homecomings and so on. Van Dyken pledged Thursday that saying farewell to fallen soldiers won’t become part of the routine.

“My commitment would be that we never allow it to become just another ceremony,” he said.

Officials at Fort Lewis said the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division is scheduling a consolidated memorial on June 5 for the last four soldiers it lost in its first month in Iraq: Staff Sgts. David Kuehl and Kristopher Higdon, Pfc. Robert Worthington, and Spc. Mathew LaForest. A single memorial service for Sgt. Iosiwo Uruo, a member of 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, will go on as planned this Thursday.