82nd Forced to Expand Memorial As War Deaths Mount

Thursday, May 15, 2008 10:29 AM

FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- When the Army's 82nd Airborne Division dedicated a memorial to paratroopers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, organizers believed three sides of a wide granite column would be plenty of space to engrave the names of the fallen.

Three years later, there is no more room.

The last name on the memorial belongs to Sgt. Clayton G. Dunn, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in May 2007. To accommodate the rising number of casualties, military officials have been forced to expand the memorial by adding a granite wall. The wall now has 50 new names _ each a grim reminder that a 13-ton granite tower vastly underestimated how much space it would take to honor the fallen.

"We can put on as many as we need to now," said retired command Sgt. Maj. Roger Vickers, who served for 14 years in the 82nd. "The hope is we don't ever have to put another name on it at all."

That is unlikely.

The United States has lost more than 4,000 soldiers in Iraq and 800 in Afghanistan since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The 82nd lost 62 paratroopers in 2007, more than in any other year since the wars began. Three separate incidents in Iraq last year each claimed the lives of seven or more paratroopers from the 82nd.

The 82nd isn't the only division squeezed for memorial space. A memorial at Fort Hood in Texas honoring fallen soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division _ which lost 174 soldiers between the end of 2006 and 2008 as several of its brigades served in Iraq _ is filling up, said Dennis Webster, executive director of the 1st Cavalry Division Association. The names of future soldiers who die in service will have to be engraved on the back side, Webster said.

Tradition usually calls for memorials to wait until after the conflict has ended. The Vietnam War memorial in Washington opened in 1982, several years after the end of the war. It wasn't until 2004 that the World War II memorial opened nearby.

Webster said he would have preferred to wait before building the 1st Cavalry's Iraq and Afghanistan memorial at Fort Hood, but many members of the 1st Cavalry Division Association fought in Vietnam and recalled how they were treated poorly after their return from combat in southeast Asia.

"They were adamant that the veterans of this war are treated properly," Webster said.

The 82nd's memorial stands behind the division museum at Fort Bragg, and displays the words, "In memory of the Paratroopers who gave their lives in support of the Global War on Terrorism." Last year, some of the 82nd's retired sergeants major and officers raised money to build the wall behind the column once it became clear it would soon be out of room.

The 82nd's expanded memorial will be formally unveiled later this month during the division's "All American Week," an observance that traditionally occurs the week before Memorial Day. Hundreds of veterans from the 82nd are expected to visit Fort Bragg for the event.

The 82nd's 1st Brigade is still deployed to southern Iraq and its 3rd Brigade is training to return to Iraq in the fall.

The constant deployments have made the memorial column and wall hallowed ground for the division's paratroopers and their families. Sgt. 1st Class Rick Hinkle, who has friends listed on the memorial, said every paratrooper serving in the division knows someone whose name is listed on the wall or column.

Hinkle knows his name could have easily been among them. He was shot seven times when his unit was ambushed in Afghanistan. Fully recovered, he is now in charge of helping with the memorial's expansion. It's a job he takes seriously, even scrutinizing the color of the new granite wall to make sure it matches the original column.

"It is my responsibility to ensure that these guys aren't forgotten," Hinkle said. "I know they would do the same for me."

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