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Juliette Kayyem

Lost bodies and erroneous tombstones

Soldiers in part of the last US military convoy to leave Iraq prepared for a group photo while waiting at a staging area near Nasiriyah, Iraq, on Saturday.

LUCAS JACKSON/AFP/Getty Images

Soldiers in part of the last US military convoy to leave Iraq prepared for a group photo while waiting at a staging area near Nasiriyah, Iraq, on Saturday.

THE SYMBOL of how our expectations about the war in Iraq were so catastrophically in error will not be found in the burned buildings of Baghdad, the sands of the desert, or in the fact that our troops finally left Iraq in a caravan of tanks in 2011, and not in 2003 as promised.

In a sad coincidence, and an indignity that can barely be excused, the Air Force conceded this month that it dumped into a Virginia landfill the partial remains of at least 274 soldiers that had been returned to the Dover Air Force base in Delaware.

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When a soldier dies, Dover is the first stop home. At first we were not allowed to see their bodies; the media were banned from taking photographs. Perhaps it was to protect the sanctity of death from voyeurism, but over time, the numbers of deaths themselves became something we tried to ignore. One thousand, 2,000, it kept climbing.

A war sold on shock and awe did not leave room for the effects of a long slog, and the kind of warfare we would experience in Iraq.

Across the military establishment, there was a lack of planning for those returning home — dead or alive. Egregious medical conditions for soldiers at Walter Reed hospital in Washington were explained as being the result of an overloaded system that didn’t anticipate the burdens of a decade of war. Arlington National Cemetery could not manage the numbers of deaths, resulting in lost bodies and erroneous tombstones.

The units at Dover are dealing with thousands of body parts — pieces of soldiers who often suffered the quick and calculating death of the insurgent’s favorite form of warfare, the IED. The mental and physical toll on our veterans has yet to be measured as they restart their interrupted lives.

Walter Reed, Arlington, Dover: These are not cities we liberated in Iraq but indignities our soldiers suffered here. The war overwelmed our capabilities at home, and we are still overwhelmed.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem.
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