Some Gave All: Operation Iraqi Freedom 6th Anniversary
Story by Tech. Sgt. Craig LiftonDate: 03.19.2009JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq
In the dark of a night filled with the thick dust of an approaching storm, stands the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Fallen Airman Memorial. Perhaps nothing symbolizes six years since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom more than the memorial.
Built of steel on top of cement, the memorial stands in front of the 332nd AEW Headquarters here. Three flag poles tower over it, flying the U.S., Iraqi and Air Force flags day and night (except during inclement weather). On the memorial are the names of 47 brave men and women who gave all in service to their country for a country not their own.
On a small plaque, a dedication is engraved. Part of the dedication reads: “Many were called to serve in the global war on terror, all have sacrificed.” The 47 did. They left the safety of their homes and the love of family and friends to go halfway around the world and bring freedom and democracy. They would live in austere conditions and engage the enemy in combat.
Engraved on the memorial are the individuals’ names, jobs and the dates of their deaths. Above each placard is the member’s functional badge or flying wings.
With every name there is a story, with every story there is a sacrifice that sadly ended the same way: Each Airman on this memorial paid for freedom with their life.
One of the first to fall was Maj. William “Salty” Watkins, a weapons officer on an F-15E Strike Eagle that was lost during a combat mission bombing enemy positions near Tikrit, Iraq, on April 7, 2003. As a boy growing up in Virginia, Watkins dreamed of flying. He was the 28th OIF casualty to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
On April 10, 2004, insurgents attacked then Balad Air Base. A mortar crashed through the roof of the tent Airman 1st Class Antoine Holt lived in and exploded, killing him and wounding two others. Holt was a data systems technician. Later, the stadium here would be named after him.
When an Army vehicle rolled over into a canal Feb. 13, 2005, firefighter Staff Sgt. Ray Rangel tried desperately to rescue two Soldiers trapped in the vehicle. He died in the attempt.
When coalition ground forces came under heavy fire on Nov. 27, 2006, Maj. Troy Gilbert swung his F-16 Fighting Falcon in to support them. While engaging with the enemy, his fighter crashed northwest of Baghdad. Gilbert was the first F-16 pilot to die since the start of OIF.
On Nov. 1 2007, while on a mission, a convoy of Office of Special Investigations agents was struck by an improvised explosive device. Master Sgt. Thomas Crowell, Staff Sgt. David Wieger and Special Agent Nathan Schuldheissl were all killed.
These are just a few of the names on the memorial, a few of the stories of service, sacrifice and heroic actions. As the dedication also reads:
“They stood in the gap and manned a post, bore a weapon, operated a convoy vehicle, or flew a jet aircraft all in support of our national objective to help Iraq transition to democracy.”
Our fallen 332 AEW Airmen’s sacrifice has not been vain. This year, Iraq held successful elections for the first time since 2005. As the commanding general of Multi-National Force – Iraq, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno recently wrote in a letter to the men and women of MNF-I, “The Iraqi government is able to exercise its sovereignty and to take increased responsibility for the future of its people.” That’s thanks to us here marking the sixth anniversary of OIF. That’s thanks to Watkins, Holt, Rangel, Gilbert, Crowell, Wieger and Schuldheissl.