- Associated Press - Monday, May 31, 2010

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan | U.S. forces serving in Afghanistan and Iraq remembered friends and colleagues on 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 air strikes 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 air strike.

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 Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, 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 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.

Gen. McChrystal praised the soldiers for their sacrifice.

“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,” Gen. 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 Maj. Sherwood, of the 82nd Airborne Division based in Fort Bragg.

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 Maj. Powell, of the 401st Army Field Support Brigade. “You come here, you do your mission, and you pray.”

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 in October.

NATO said an air strike 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. Mr. 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.

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