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Efforts in Iraq bring British Honors for Airman

SAN ANTONIO (AFPN) -- The volunteer efforts by an Air Force captain while deployed to Iraq last year has earned her the honor of being the first American to march with a British regiment at The Cenotaph war memorial Nov. 12 in London's Whitehall.

Capt. Jutta Cortes, the deputy director of security forces for the 20th Air Force at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., leaves Nov. 6 for England, where she will meet with veterans from the Royal Air Force Habbaniya Association with whom she will march at a remembrance service.

The memorial, built for the first anniversary of the armistice in 1919, is the site of a remembrance service each year to commemorate British servicemembers who have died during both world wars. The service takes place on the Sunday nearest the 11th of November at 11 a.m. each year.

The invitation by the association to march at The Cenotaph comes almost a year after volunteer efforts led by Captain Cortes to restore a British cemetery site in Iraq made possible the first official remembrance service for those lying in rest there since the Royal Air Force left in 1959. The cemetery at Habbaniya, Iraq, where British forces were based, served as the final resting place for many servicemembers and their families until the late 1950s.

Once one of Saddam Hussein's premier air bases, Habbaniyah now serves as a base for the new Iraqi army, where Captain Cortes was deployed from May 2005 to April 2006 as one of four people assigned to a military advisory training team.

"There were no technical schools set up yet for training the Iraqi infantry and military police. After they wrapped up basic training, we provided the additional training to include base defense, tower operations and patrolling," said the Emmaus, Pa., native.

It was after she was deployed almost five months that she happened to be on the receiving end of a phone call from Dr. Christopher D.E. Morris, who served at the base almost 50 years earlier. He ran across an article about Captain Cortes in the Advisor, a publication by the Multi-national Security Transition Command in Iraq that reports on the efforts and progress of different training teams throughout Iraq.

As the honorary secretary of the RAF Habbaniya Association, he contacted the captain to request she organize a remembrance service at the cemetery of the former British base. Captain Cortes was excited to help, but soon discovered it may require more effort than first considered.

"The cemetery was beyond disrepair," she said. "We had to clean it up to even make it look presentable before we could conduct a service."

Volunteering to help her were Master Sgt. Steve Amundson and Tech. Sgt. Stephen Veever, also members of advisory team. However, what first began as merely a volunteer effort soon became an example of multinational teamwork and sharing of respect for cross-cultural beliefs.

"We asked if anyone was interested in volunteering on their own time, and about 40 Iraqi soldiers came out to help, which is unusual since it was not an Islamic site," she said.

It took volunteers a little more than two days days to complete the work, which was interrupted on the last day by incoming mortar fire at the base, requiring the Airmen to provide medical assistance. The captain then organized a commemoration to include representation by every branch of service, flights of American and Iraqi soldiers, a 21-gun salute and ceremonial music - the first such remembrance service there since 1959.

The efforts led by Captain Cortes prompted Dr. Morris to seek approval from the British Monarch to allow her to march with the association's regiment in the service at The Cenotaph next week.

"Anybody who has a sense of patriotism would have done the same thing," she modestly admits. "I only regret my two NCOs can't be with me. Without them and the Iraqi soldiers, we couldn't have done it."

Both Sergeants Amundson and Veever were in the process of traveling this week. Sergeant Veever arrived for his new assignment Hickam AFB, Hawaii, and Sergeant Amundson is deployed to Afghanistan.