BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan – U.S. forces serving in Afghanistan and Iraq remembered friends and colleagues Monday in solemn Memorial Day ceremonies to commemorate all of their nation's war dead.
As some soldiers paused, violence raged on in both places.
In Afghanistan, U.S.-led NATO forces launched airstrikes against Taliban insurgents who had forced government forces to abandon a district in Nuristan, a remote province on the Pakistan border. NATO also said it killed one of the Taliban's top two commanders in the insurgent stronghold of Kandahar in a separate airstrike.
At the sprawling Bagram Air Field, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan, about 400 soldiers in camouflage uniforms and brown combat boots stood at attention for a moment's silence as Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of some 94,000 U.S. troops in the country, led the ceremony.
A bugler played taps and a color guard displayed the U.S. flag and the flags of units serving in eastern Afghanistan where the base is located, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Kabul.
A steel construction beam from the World Trade Center destroyed in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks was unveiled, with the inscription "WTC 9 11 01". The beam was donated by citizens' group the Sons and Daughters of America of Breezy Point, a suburb in Queens, New York, where 29 victims of the Sept. 11 attacks lived, according to a letter read out at the ceremony.
McChrystal praised the soldiers for their courage given the likelihood that they will lose more friends during their tours.
"The fact that people are willing to stand up and do whats difficult, theyre willing to stand up and do whats frightening, and theyre willing to stand up and do what often costs, really is the measure of not just a person, but of a people," McChrystal said.
At Bagram, Maj. John Sherwood, 38, of San Antonio, said Memorial Day is more somber in Afghanistan than in the U.S., as people remember friends who died.
"I think about a few people I knew, mostly back in Iraq," said Sherwood, of the 82nd Airborne Division based in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Maj. Sonya Powell, 42, of Cincinnati, said she thought of two people: her executive officer who was killed in an aircraft crash in October, and her 4-year-old son, who is waiting for her to come home.
"It's very hard, but you don't dwell on it," said Powell, of the 401st Army Field Support Brigade. "You come here, you do your mission, and you pray."
McChrystal also visited an Afghan military unit for a remembrance ceremony for 39 Afghan commandos who have died since the unit's inception in 2006 — a reminder of Afghan lives lost as well.
In the Iraqi capital, hundreds of American troops gathered to remember their fallen comrades in one of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein's former palaces in Baghdad that is now part of the U.S. military's Camp Victory.
Troops placed a wreath at the foot of a towering American flag inside the palace, and a brass band played the American national anthem. Troops enjoyed cake after the ceremony.
Lt. Gen. Robert W. Cone, deputy commanding general for U.S. forces in Iraq, urged his countrymen to "take time today to think about those who made their freedom possible."
Separate attacks in Iraq killed four people — including a prominent leader of anti-insurgent forces — and wounded several others, police and hospital officials said Monday.
In Afghanistan, NATO aircraft pounded Taliban positions in Nuristan's Barg-e-Matal district after fighters — many of whom traveled from Pakistan, Afghan officials said — routed government forces there last week in a major assault.
Taliban strength has grown in Nuristan since U.S. troops abandoned an outpost where eight American soldiers were killed in a fierce attack last October.
NATO said an airstrike in Panjwai district on Sunday killed Haji Amir, who it called one of the Taliban's top two leaders in Kandahar province, where coalition troops are laying the groundwork for a major operation. Amir escaped from prison two years ago and had been directing Taliban attacks in Kandahar from Pakistan until April, when he returned to Afghanistan, NATO said.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi denied any militants had been killed by NATO forces in Panjwai in recent days, and said he had never heard of Haji Amir.
NATO reported the death of another service member, taking a tally by The Associated Press to 50 for May — the deadliest month since February when American, NATO and Afghan forces seized the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in Helmand province. NATO did not identify the service member, but Britain's Defense Ministry said Monday that one of its marines had been killed in an explosion in Helmand.
May is already the deadliest month of 2010 for U.S. troops, with 33 deaths, and also brought the grim milestone of America's 1,000th military death in the Afghan war since it began in 2001.
McChrystal, who is also NATO commander in Afghanistan, said Sunday that while Tehran has generally assisted the Afghan government in fighting the insurgents, there was clear evidence that some Taliban were being trained in Iran, Afghanistan's western neighbor.
In Paktia province, a civilian contractor's helicopter crash-landed Sunday, killing one civilian on the ground and slightly injuring three crew members, NATO said, adding there were no reports of insurgent involvement.
In the north, seven police were killed in a roadside bomb attack Sunday in Badakhshan, local officials said.
In nearby Kunduz, three militants were killed and seven wounded when they attacked a police checkpoint on Sunday.
And eight Afghan police were wounded Sunday by a suicide bombing at a checkpoint in Khost.
The AP's casualty figures are based on Defense Department reports of deaths as a direct result of the Afghan conflict, including personnel assigned to units in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Uzbekistan. Non-U.S. deaths are based on statements by governments with forces in the coalition.
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