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NEWS | March 25, 2010

Theater hospital wall preserves memory, sacrifice

By Maj. April Conway 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq - The 20-by 30-foot flag thousands of patients have passed under on their way to the Air Force Theater Hospital at Joint Base Balad often is photographed in military circles.

But lesser known, though no less poignant, are the walls of the Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility's recreation room.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of messages have been scrawled on the walls by patients passing through Joint Base Balad on their way to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

From all parts of Iraq and with every imaginable injury, patients spend anywhere from a few hours to a few days here awaiting aeromedical transportation.

The messages, some inked in shaky handwriting, offer thanks to the CASF staff, remembrances of fallen comrades and prayers for the future. The walls are such a historical part of Operation Iraqi Freedom that they're set to be photographically preserved and submitted to the National Museum of Health and Medicine or the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

Some planners even have their sights set for a Smithsonian Institute museum.

"Museums are places we visit to learn about history and about human development," said Lt. Col. Connie Day, the chief nurse of the CASF. "These walls offer a snapshot in time that will reflect both in the years to come."

A person could spend hours reading the many notes, such as "R.I.P. PFC Harley Andrews, 11 Sept 06 Ramadi, Sappers in TF Dagger" and "34th BCT," the Red Bull Division of the Minnesota Army National Guard.

More than 23,000 patients have passed through the CASF in just the last three years. The facility started in tents, but in late 2006 was built into a hardened shelter, and leaving messages on the walls began as part of a cathartic process, Day said.

"As mother of four, it seemed odd at first to hand over markers and say, 'Go ahead. Write on the walls,' but when you take a minute to read, you can feel the pain of people living with loss," Day said.

Planners are in talks with several museum entities and while the ultimate fate of the walls and their reflection on the history of a war is undecided, the CASF remains an oddly eloquent memorial at Joint Base Balad.

(Maj. April Conway is the state public affairs officer for the Nevada National Guard.)