Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. — In August of 2006, a patient lounge in the 332nd Expeditionary Medical Group Contingency Aeromedical Staging Flight Facility at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, turned into a place where wounded Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen could relax and write messages on the walls, forming what became known as the Walls of Balad.
Wounded warriors would go through the CASF to be airlifted to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany where they would receive further treatment. These service members would spend a couple hours up to a few days at the facility waiting for their airlift. Retired Air Force Reserve Senior Master Sgt. Karen Loalbo, CASF mission manager, came up with an idea to make the patient lounge more comfortable for the service members.
“It was a simple idea,” said Loalbo. “I talked with some troops while I was at the clinic in Balad and I thought if they ever came through the CASF I would make it a welcoming facility.”
With the approval of U.S. Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Michael Fellows, the CASF executive officer at the time, Loalbo and her team of three planned the layout of the lounge, obtained furniture, cut out and painted wooden letters to spell Warrior Wall, the original title. They also painted the walls and provided pens for patients to write on the walls.
“My vision was to have a blank canvas for them to graffiti and have fun with it,” Loalbo said. “It really took on a life of its own after that.”
It wasn’t until a year later that Loalbo and Fellows learned about the success of the Warrior Wall. A member from her team was sent on a second rotation to CASF where she took pictures of the walls and sent them to Loalbo.
“Back then, each deployment rotation was four months and each group wants to make their mark,” said Fellows. “It was a huge surprise when the rotation the following year sent us back the pictures. “We weren’t sure if the next rotations would paint over the walls and do something else or not.”
For the next five years, patients along with visitors signed the walls, covering them with signatures, farewell messages, thank you notes and memories of their fallen comrades on the lounges walls.
“I love history and when I look at events such as the Civil War, a lot of what we know is from the Soldiers’ diaries, Fellows said. “So that’s what I see in these walls is the diaries from one perspective, the wounded Soldiers.”
One wounded service member quoted John F. Kennedy on the wall: “In the long history of the world only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility, I welcome it!”
Maj. Gloria Scott from Camp Victory in Baghdad wrote a message to her sister on Dec. 12, 2006:
“To my big sister, I’ve spent my whole life following you. Now that you are gone and have given your life for us all, I must find my way without you. I will NEVER forget you. We all miss you and love you Alexis! SSG A.R Scott COB Speicher 2009-2010.”
In December of 2011, the Walls of Balad were saved and sent to the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and then shipped to 309th Aerospace and Regeneration Group at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz.
“It didn’t strike us about the permanence of these until 2012, when we had heard that they were being cut out and saved,” Fellows said. “I was stunned and excited to learn that the walls would be saved.”
On Oct. 20, 2015, Fellows, Loalbo and their spouses traveled to D-M to visit the walls nine years after they were created. Both became emotional upon seeing the success of the walls.
“We understood that it would grow and people would continue to write on them, we didn’t think it would go around the whole facility,” Fellows said.
Both Fellows and Loalbo hope that word of the Walls of Balad reach anyone who has signed them.
“It was our honor to serve in Balad and we got some phenomenal stories from the Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen coming through,” Fellows said. “They are all real heroes, but we only got little snippets of their stories and that’s something we would love is to learn about the folks that signed the walls and how they got there and what they have been doing since then.”
The walls are now safely stored in a warehouse at the 309th AMARG and have only been displayed during Base Open House events.