By Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAYThu May 26, 6:40 AM ET
Grass-roots memorials to the war dead in Iraq and Afghanistan are spreading across America, and the driving force behind them is often the same: to commemorate the individuals, rather than the wars.
"It's more about glorifying the everyman in ways that we haven't seen before," says Gary Laderman, an Emory University professor of religion and author of Rest in Peace, a history of 20th-century funeral rituals. "People are really comfortable about highlighting the individual. That's become almost a sacred kind of act."
It's why retired teacher Ed Hardy, at the behest of no one, tied yellow ribbons with the names of slain servicemembers around the trunks of pine trees in Duxbury, Mass. Or why, 14 miles away at a Little League field in Whitman, Mass., electrician Chris Johnson built a memorial of baseballs to those fighting in Iraq, one for every servicemember killed.
It's revealed in the shared hope of a company of Marines based near Fallujah: to see permanent memorials honoring their fallen comrades, so that no one ever forgets.
And it explains why a California lawyer bid $17,000 for a tattered battle flag at a benefit auction and then handed it to the mother of a man who might have been at war had he not died in training. "I was going to spend whatever it took," Rex Parris says.
As Memorial Day 2005 approaches, and as the number of casualties overseas continues to swell, those on the home front aren't waiting for government-sanctioned granite to honor sacrifice. They're crafting their own memorials or spending their own money to remember the fallen by name. To them, each loss is personal, every life sacrosanct.
"Part of it is a protest against the anonymity of mass death, " says Edward Linenthal, a professor of religion and American culture at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh who wrote The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory. "We are not going to let these people remain statistics."
Whether placing crosses on a beach in California or planting trees on an Army post in Georgia, those creating tributes reflect common traits: an overwhelming urge to act, a shared desire to honor sacrifice, and a commitment that no death go unrecognized.
"They're not being forgotten. That's the plain and that's the simple," says Johnson, 39, head of the baseball league in Whitman. His memorial currently has 1,280 baseballs. With the help of friends, Whitman says, he will erect a new display case to keep up with the number of servicemembers who have died in the Iraq war. On Wednesday, that number stood at 1,642.
"It's out of my hands," he says. "It has to keep going."
Ribbons of remembrance
Hardy, 67, says he felt powerless as he followed news from Iraq.
"All this is going on over there, you have no way to connect with it, no way to express or feel the emotion inside you," he says, recalling what triggered his ribbon memorial along a wooded pathway near Round Pond in Duxbury last summer. "There's a need to try to physically and mentally act."
The path was a quiet place on public land that Hardy found serene. He asked no one's permission to tie the ribbons and told no one outside his family. "I wanted to remain anonymous," Hardy says. "I would just do five or 10 names every night, and that was like healing. It was a place to connect with those people who lost their lives."
But as the memorial was discovered and word spread, Duxbury officials said permission had not been obtained and ordered it removed two months after Hardy created it. "You just can't do stuff like that on town property without proper controls," Duxbury Selectman Andre Martecchini says.
The local American Legion chapter supported the memorial. Newspapers criticized the decision to remove it. Supporters and opponents of the war both defended Hardy's ribbons. "That told me that what I did was the right thing," he says.
'Buy that for the parents'
Rex Parris knew what to do the moment his wife leaned over and whispered in his ear.
They were attending an awards dinner honoring Boy Scouts and local Iraq war veterans at a convention center in Lancaster, Calif., on April 21. The evening's special guests were Gary and Julie Wotasik, whose son Justin, a former Eagle Scout, died in September 1998 while training as an Air Force pararescue jumper.
The evening's climactic event was the auction of a U.S. battle flag that had flown over the embattled Iraqi city of Fallujah. Proceeds would go to the Boy Scouts. As bidding began, Carroll Parris leaned over to her husband.
"She just whispered in my ear, 'You should buy that for the parents,' " the civil attorney recalls.
He and a local physician were the only ones still bidding at $10,000. Parris' final bid - $17,000 - transfixed the room, he recalls. "You're not thinking at that point, and there's a lot of adrenaline."
The lawyer gathered the flag in its wooden case and immediately handed it to Julie Wotasik as tears flowed and the room resonated with applause. Parris said his decision to purchase the flag was his way of honoring soldiers killed in Iraq, and celebrating the life of a man who was preparing to serve his country in war. "I knew it was the right thing to do," he says.
Rifle, boots and helmet
Two years ago, Maryland bronze dealer Richard Rist began receiving phone calls from families asking about statues to pay tribute to veterans. In response, he designed and marketed a bronze depiction of an iconic battlefield image: a rifle propped barrel-down into combat boots, topped with a helmet.
He charges $3,700 a statue for families of slain servicemembers - barely above cost, Rist says - to keep the memorials as affordable as possible. Seven have been sold in the past two months. He says at least 50 other families or groups have told him they're raising money to buy them. "They want something that's going to be permanent," Rist says.
Among them are Jeff and Debbie Hower of Altamont, Mo. Army Staff Sgt. Clinton Wisdom, 39, the husband of Debbie Hower's sister, Janet, died in Iraq last year. "You can already tell that for some people, (the death) is already fading away," says Debbie, 49, a respiratory therapist. "For us, it's just too real. And I don't want them to forget about him. I want his children and his grandchildren and the community to know he was a hero."
Wisdom, a father of one and stepfather of two, was with a detachment of the Kansas National Guard assigned to escort convoys along a dangerous stretch of highway to Baghdad International Airport. On Nov. 8, a suicide car bomber raced toward a convoy he was escorting. Chief U.S. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer was in the convoy.
Wisdom and Spc. Don Clary, 21, drove their armored Chevy Suburban into the bomber's path. The explosion killed both soldiers. Both have since received posthumous promotions: Wisdom to sergeant 1st class and Clary to sergeant.
The Howers, with help from members of the Kansas National Guard, are working to place two of Rist's bronze war memorials at each of three Kansas Guard armories: in Horton, in Clary's hometown of Troy and in Wisdom's hometown of Atchison.
Jeff Hower, 52, a chemical company engineer, says raising money to buy the memorials will be "a huge, huge undertaking." He hopes a series of benefits - from skeet shooting, fishing and golf to volleyball and motorcycle riding - will bring in the money. "We don't want a memorial to wind up in Washington, D.C.," Debbie Hower says. "We want them in hometowns."
Karen Meredith drives five hours from her home in Mountain View, Calif., to reach a memorial dedicated to her son and every other U.S. military death in Iraq. It's located on the beach off Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara.
Every Sunday at 7:30 a.m., weather permitting, several members of Veterans for Peace, led by retired mailman and former sailor Lane Anderson, 57, begin assembling rows of wooden crosses in the sand, one for each death. They take them down by evening.
Begun in November 2003 and called "Arlington West," the memorial now covers a space the size of a football field. Other Veterans for Peace chapters across the country have begun similar displays
Last Sunday, the Santa Barbara memorial had 1,631 crosses. One carried the name of Meredith's son, Army Lt. Ken Ballard, 26, who was killed by a sniper in Najaf on Memorial Day 2004. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington. But his mother visits his cross at Arlington West.
"I just consider it a very loving memorial," says Meredith, 51. "It's a place to go and be. It means a lot to me to have a place."
'They're so human'
An art exhibit at Arlington National Cemetery features row upon row of more than 1,200 renderings of military men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They are the creative vision of Annette Polan, an associate professor of art at the Corcoran College of Art + Design in Washington.
Photos in The Washington Post of troops killed in war inspired Polan to bring together more than 200 artists to create "Faces of the Fallen," an exhibit that runs through Veterans Day in November.
"You look at these faces and they're young. And some are shy. Some are proud. And they're so human. And they're so dead," she says. "It is an incalculable loss."
To place limits on the project, Polan authorized portraits only of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan prior to Veterans Day 2004 - still an ambitious 1,327 likenesses. Artists volunteered their time to create images in various media, from oil, acrylic and watercolor to pencil, wood carving and montage.
The Defense Department offered families of the fallen the chance not to have their loved one included in the exhibit. None declined, Polan says, and the families will receive the original renderings as gifts when the exhibit ends.
"It is such a manifestation of American generosity at all levels," says Polan, who was stunned by the responses of the families and the artists. "I haven't talked to a single artist who wasn't affected by this project, no matter what media, no matter what style, no matter what their position on the war."
Rather than putting up portraits or crosses, the Army is planting a tree at Fort Stewart, Ga., for every death suffered by the 3rd Infantry Division, which is based there. The division was the first to reach Baghdad in 2003, early in the war, and it returned to Iraq this year.
Eastern redbud trees were chosen because they produce pink-purple blossoms in the spring - the season when the division's GIs began fighting and dying in Iraq, says Rich Olson, a spokesman for Fort Stewart. Currently, 84 trees line an area called Warrior's Walk.
"The last time I was there, I just couldn't believe how long the path had gotten," says Gary Holloway, chairman of a Maryland-based company that manages family housing on 18 military bases, including Fort Stewart.
His firm anonymously financed the project in 2003 and recently made its role public. "When you think about these soldiers," Holloway says, "it's really pretty minimal what we're doing in return."
Army historian William Epley says honoring individual soldiers with separate memorials is a slight departure from a military tradition that calls for remembering a unit as a whole. "It was a new idea," Olson says. "It seems appropriate."
'If I were to fall'
At a base near Fallujah, Lima Company Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment dream of seeing a memorial in the hometown of every American servicemember lost in the war.
Between patrols into the city, Lance Cpl. John Romero, 25, and Lance Cpl. Gilberto Burbante Jr., 22, have led the discussion, tinkering even with details of the design: perhaps something in black granite, with a folded American flag encased in glass and special lighting. And a simple adage: All gave some and some gave all.
"I have lost a lot of good friends. So in their honor, I will see this memorial erected," Romero wrote in an e-mail from Iraq.
He laid out his dream in a letter this month in his hometown paper, The Santa Fe New Mexican. Part of his plea: "It would bring me comfort knowing that, if I were to fall, my name would last through the ages for all to see."