Families await emotional decision on once-a-month services

FORT LEWIS - Twenty soldiers deployed to Iraq from Fort Lewis were killed in May, a monthly high. That same month, the post announced a change in how it would honor its dead: instead of units holding services as casualties occurred, 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. By mid-June, the post had put the plan on hold, and its commander, Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, is expected to decide today 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 the Vietnam and Korean wars, the historians say, many posts 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 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 such as 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 on bases are in addition to those conducted by the soldier's unit overseas as well as private family services, which usually include military honor guard. 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, the 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 ba ses, local elected officials attend the services. At Fort Hood, whose 1st 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," a spokeswoman for Fort Hood, Diane Battaglia, 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."