AL ASAD, Iraq -- In 1980 Iraq conducted an air and land invasion of western Iran. The war, over territorial, religious and ethnic disputes, endured eight long years and both countries paid a heavy price in human life.
The Iran and Iraq War, reported as one of the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th Century, lasted nearly a decade and it is estimated that the number of dead was more than 1.5 million.
A small resting place on the west side of the air base, marks the final resting spot for many Iraqi soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice between 1980 and 1988; many others including children and adults are also laid to rest here.
According to a former general in the Iraqi Army here, the cemetery, almost forgotten, has been a part of this region for more than 50 years. Approximately 100 Iraqis, possibly more, make up this burial place. A small village once occupied this location, but was forced to vacate by Saddam Hussein in the early 1980s when construction of Al Asad Air Base began. This location was home to those who are buried in this graveyard.
The heavy lifters from Marine Wing Support Squadron 271 Heavy Equipment Platoon, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, removed discarded junk and rubble from the inside and surrounding area of the cemetery. These warriors constructed a protective fence and placed neat berms of earth around the resting place to preserve it from any possible desecration.
“Some people buried in the cemetery are by our standards war heroes,” said Cpl. Jamie A. Jarvi, 21, from Laurium, Mich. “Those people and all others deserve the same respect that any American would want.”
The heat and dusty air posed the biggest challenge for the operators. The task took six days to complete and about 750 man-hours were devoted to the assignment.
“I feel it was an honor to do this project because some day when the people of this country come on to the base and see what we have done, it shows that we do care,” said Sgt. Michael D. Johnson, project supervisor, from Covington, Ga. “We want their heroes to have the same honor that our heroes in the United States have when they [make the ultimate sacrifice].”
“My first thought was that this project was well out of the ordinary scope of projects we normally receive,” said Chief Warrant Officer Todd L. McAllister, platoon commander from Roseburg, Ore. “Due to the importance of it, it had to become a personal project and set forth an image to the Iraqi people that we are here to help in anyway possible.”
These Marines feel that this endeavor gives their deployment a different meaning. Although, by all accounts, Iraqi soldiers have fought against America, these Iraqi soldiers were killed in a different time; a time when the United States remained neutral between the Iran-Iraq conflict. More than 17 years since the guns fell silent and fighting between the two Arab nations ceased, these Marines see this as an opportunity to help restore a nation.
“This project gave me a chance to take a direct part in the rebuilding of Iraq,” said Jarvi. “Hopefully this shows the Iraqi people that we are not only here to fight terrorism, but to help rebuild their country.”
Brig. Gen. Robert E. Milstead Jr., the commanding general of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), thanked the Marines for taking his vision and making it a reality. Their devotion and committed passion was evident in the job.
“This sacred ground was surrounded by trash, and that isn’t the way to honor the Iraqi dead,” said the general. “All the Marines here appreciate the good Iraqi people and the sacrifices of those Iraqis who were killed in action during the war between Iraq and Iran ,” he added. “You can see the results of the Marine’s hard work. I appreciate the Marine Wing Support Squadron for their respect of those who have gone before us.”
“This project was a privilege to be a part of; knowing first hand what it is like to bury a loved one, it brought on more personal meaning,” lamented McAllister. “It’s an honor to take part in protecting and preserving a sacred cemetery for the heroes [and Iraqi civilians] who are buried here.”
Editors Note: This marked the final step in a project that started in mid April with a clean up of a nearby oasis and surrounding stone structures. According to Arab legend, around 1900 B.C., Abraham was cast from his kingdom south of here because of his religious beliefs. As Abraham wandered the desert he came to the oasis located in the palm grove here to drink. As legend goes, the oasis now has healing powers. True or not, the Euphrates River, located only a few miles away, served as a major travel route during ancient times. According to those taking part in the restoration, this location was a fitting burial site for the fallen Iraqis.