Walls of Balad one time only Arizona display at DM open house this weekend | Events
Commentary submitted by Ms. Ruthanne Pitts, 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, Honorary Commander
For the last decade, the most notable structure on Pennsylvania Avenue has not been a White House, but a White Hospital.
Until just last year, this particular white hospital stood on Pennsylvania Avenue at Camp ‘Anaconda’— sometimes called ‘Mortaritaville’– on Joint Base Balad, Iraq, and a piece of this history will be on display at Davis-Monthan’s Thunder and Lightning Over Arizona Open House, April 14th and 15th.
At one time, Balad Hospital was the busiest treatment center in the world. More than 38,000 wounded service members, civilians and Iraqis were treated and sent to other hospitals, home, or back to their units. The survival rate at Balad, a Level 1 equivalent trauma center, topped a miraculous 96 percent.
Any typical moment brought an air evacuation helicopter to the landing pads where wounded service members were carried on litters, or in the arms and on the backs of comrades, through Heroes Highway to the efficient and capable care at Balad Hospital.
Heroes Highway, an arched metal hangar, came to signify American safety. Displayed on the roof of the hangar was a 20 feet by 30 feet American flag. Wounded service members had only to look up from their litters to see the stars and stripes of freedom. On the right and left, care taking professionals were already beginning their life saving tasks.
Just beyond Heroes Highway was the Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility (CASF), a holding area where the sick and critically wounded would wait for an airlift out of Iraq. Since stabilized patients could wait for a departing flight to Landstuhl, Germany for as long as three days, a lounge was set up away from the main hospital treatment bay for ambulatory patients to move around. It was here they began to write messages on the walls.
No one knows who wrote the first message, but since then, thousands of notes, each of them humbling and evocative of sacrifice, cover the walls in a field of precious graffiti.
There are notes of well-wishes, of rest-in-peace, of remembrance; messages that say ‘thank you for the care’, and to ask God’s blessing for the fallen. They are penciled and crayoned, penned and illustrated. Most are in English, others are in Spanish, German, and Iraqi.
Many of the messages are from ranking officers, actors and well-known political leaders. But the most poignant and evocative are the notes from young warriors.
“To my boys from Charlie Co. who gave it all, until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand. R.I.P.”, Cpl Piersen 8-25-06 and LPC Dechen 8-03-06.
“To my wife and those like her who paid the ultimate price for our freedom. May you all walk the streets of heaven…for walking the streets of hell you’ve already done.” (signed) SSG Crews/502 PSG Ft Hood.
And a quick scribble that shows a little wartime humor, “I signed my name next to Gen. Petraeus!”, (signed) Cpl Tom Cannon.
Every global media outlet has featured Balad Hospital. A simple Google search pulls over a million references. Many of those news articles describe the remarkable CASF walls of Balad Hospital. Our military historians view them as war-time journals authored by hundreds of hands. Like other great walls—the Vietnam Memorial Wall, the Wailing Wall, the Great Wall of China—this one is destined to remain historical and memorialized.
Through the coordinated efforts of engineers, historians and senior leadership, the CASF lounge walls have been carefully dismantled, cartoned and freighted to the United States. There are no final distribution plans for the walls as of this date. However, future destinations may include the new Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, a hospital at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., the Museum of Aviation at Robins, Air Force Base, Ga., the new Defense Health Headquarters in Arlington, Va., the Pentagon, or the Air Force Museum at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
Until a final decision is made, they will be safely stored at the remarkable facilities of the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group here in Tucson on Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. While 309th AMARG Commander, Col. Patrick Kumashiro, was in Iraq, he visited both Heroes Highway and the hospital. When he learned that the walls would be stored at AMARG, he determined that they should be safely displayed during Thunder and Lighting Over Arizona Open House.
“The timing was perfect especially after the President’s announcement of the end of the Iraq war on Dec 15, 2011,” said Colonel Kumashiro. “These walls that solaced so many clearly wear the scars of battle and are poignant memorials to our military members that paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country and to our medical professionals that assisted our wounded warriors in their recovery.”
“It’s a privileged opportunity for the Air Force to share the Balad walls legacy with Tucson,” said Colonel Kumashiro.
Working with Air Force historians and local preservation experts, AMARG will host the secure exhibition of the Walls of Balad during the D-M Open House. Afterwards, they will be re-cartoned and safely stored until their fate is decided.
The hospital walls will never again be displayed in Arizona. Once they are dismantled on April 15th, they go back into long-term secured storage. This autobiography of war, faith, healing and the promise of freedom provides a uniquely personal history of our Iraqi engagement.
For a singular opportunity to view the Walls of Balad, visit the 309th AMARG display from 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. on April 14th and 15th. There is no cost to attend Thunder and Lighting Over Arizona Days or to view the display. You may take photographs and should bring tissue. This record of love and sacrifice is unlike anything you will ever see again.
For additional information on the Davis-Monthan Open House, please email the 355th Fighter Wing Public Affairs Office; 55WGPA@dm.af.mil.