BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — U.S. soldiers serving in Afghanistan remembered friends and colleagues Monday in solemn Memorial Day ceremonies to commemorate all of their nation’s war dead.
The nearly 9-year-old war raged on, meanwhile, with NATO forces launching airstrikes against Taliban insurgents who had forced government forces to abandon the Barg-e-Matal district in Nuristan, an eastern province on the border with Pakistan. No casualty figures were given.
At the sprawling Bagram Air Field, the largest U.S. military base, 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, as well as 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, engraved with 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 sacrifice, telling them: “You’re giving your time for other families.”
“Today is about people. It is about the people we have lost and most importantly it’s about the people who have been left behind,” McChrystal said, referring to the families of those who have died. He later attended another ceremony at Camp Morehead, a smaller base for a commando unit.
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.
Maj. Sonya Powell, 42, of Cincinnati, said she though 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.”
In the latest fighting Monday, NATO aircraft pounded the Taliban in eastern Nuristan province after government forces last week abandoned the district’s main town following a major assault by the militants, many of them coming in from Pakistan, Afghan officials said.
Taliban strength grew in the Nuristan area after U.S. troops abandoned an outpost where eight American soldiers were killed in a fierce attack last October.
And NATO said it killed a Taliban commander, Haji Amir, and several fighters in a precision airstrike in the Panjwai district in southern Kandahar province, where troops are laying the groundwork for a major operation. A NATO statement said 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 also reported the latest death of a service member, killed by a makeshift bomb in the country’s south. It was NATO’s 50th death this month, according to a tally by The Associated Press.
U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Joseph T. Breasseale said the latest service member killed was not an American, though an American was killed in a separate incident on Sunday that was reported earlier.
May is already the deadliest month this year for U.S. troops with 33 deaths — two more than in February when American, NATO and Afghan forces seized the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in Helmand province. The month also brought the 1,000th U.S. military death in the Afghan war since it began in 2001.
McChrystal, who is also NATO commander in Afghanistan, said on Sunday that Iran — Afghanistan’s western neighbor — has generally assisted the Afghan government in fighting the insurgent group.
“There is, however, clear evidence of Iranian activity — in some cases providing weaponry and training to the Taliban — that is inappropriate,” he said.
Last month, McChrystal said there were indications that Taliban were training in Iran, but not many and not in a way that suggested it was part of an Iranian government policy. He did not give details on how many people have trained in Iran at Sunday’s news conference.
In Paktia province, NATO said a civilian contractor’s helicopter crash-landed Sunday, killing one civilian on the ground and slightly injuring three crew members. The cause was being investigated, but there were no reports of insurgent involvement, NATO said.
In the north, insurgents detonated a remote-controlled bomb Sunday as a police convoy passed by, killing seven officers in a province previously considered to be relatively safe, said deputy provincial Gov. Shams-ul Rahman.
In nearby Kunduz province, militants attacked a police checkpoint in Ali Abad district, triggering a gunbattle that killed three insurgents and wounded seven others, the Interior Ministry said.
Eight Afghan police were wounded Sunday by a suicide bomber who struck a checkpoint on the outskirts of Khost City southeast of Kabul, officials said.
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 that have contributed forces to the coalition.
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez and Rohan Sullivan in Kabul contributed to this report.
Heidi Vogt/The Associated Press