CAMP HABBANIYAH, Iraq --
There is an unofficial rule for Marines that says to always leave a place in better condition than when they found it.
With that goal in mind, Marines from Headquarters and Service Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 6, gathered in formation in the early morning hours of one of their last days in Iraq. Their task wasn’t any normal working party or police call, but one that brought them to hallowed ground. Their mission was to clean and restore the British Royal Air Force Cemetery at Camp Habbaniyah.
“We spent seven months here and we’re living a part of history,” said Lt. Col. James F. McGrath, 41, from Laurel, Md. “We’re sitting in a place that has history that dates all the way back to World War I. I thought it fitting that the Marines get over there and recognize what kind of history they are part of. I thought by getting over there they would be able to see those headstones and it would be embedded in their minds where they could end up. Plus it was a good thing to do in terms of just helping the area out, making it look better and trying to get it to return to normal.”
The cemetery is one of the more potent reminders of the history of the base, which was created in 1927 by a treaty between Iraq and Britain. The base was the site of a pivotal battle in World War II that kept allied oil supplies out of German hands in May 1941. The base last flew the British flag in 1959, but the remains of 289 Britons and Polish service members are still buried here.
The cemetery was neglected and abused in the years that followed the departure of British forces. After the invasion in 2003, the camp was occupied by Coalition Forces. Since then, there have been several cleanup projects by Army and Air Force personnel stationed at Habbaniyah, with the most recent one taking place in September 2006. After the most recent clean sweep, however, the cemetery again needed some caretaking.
With the rising sun on the horizon, the Marines began the solemn business at hand. Weeds were removed, trash was picked up and fallen gravestones were gently placed back in their places.
“Once again I’m amazed at what happens when a few Marines put their backs into something,” said McGrath, the battalion commander. “Just like we’ve done the whole time we’ve been here, we put a little heart and soul into everything we’ve done and made a difference.”
In just a couple hours of hard work the task was completed and the cemetery was transformed into a place worthy to pay respect to the men and women buried there. The joy of completing the project was mixed with sober thoughts as the reality sunk in.
“It gives you a sense of pride helping out and making things look better,” said Cpl. Jeffrey T. Hall, 21, from Eaton, Ohio.
Many Marines took a last lap around the graveyard, surveying their work, and reading the headstones of those who lay there. One epitaph summed up what many were thinking as they looked upon the resting places of those who gave their lives for freedom: “He answered willingly the call and he who gives himself gives all.”