In the early hours on the Friday before Memorial Day, members of the Delaware Valley Veterans for America, other veterans groups and volunteers, began the painstaking process of marking out the grid that hours later would hold markers representing the 4081 U.S. service members who lost their lives in the Iraq war (as of May 24).
Adding to this stunning visual were the buildings that flanked the memorial that was first displayed on Veteran’s Day 2005. But, it wasn’t historic Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell or the National Constitution Center that pulled at the heartstrings of those who walked along the somber exhibit. It was the tone that was set by the organizers, mostly veterans, who moved quietly among the perfect rows listening, sharing stories, and answering sometimes difficult questions.
For many Americans, Memorial Day weekend is synonymous with the start of summer festivities; the first trip to the “shore,” breaking out the grill and the convertible and spending time outdoors with family and friends. Thoughts of Memorial Day often elicit sounds of marching bands and images of motorcades making their way down Main Street, America with crowds waving flags from the sidelines.
These activities were not part of the spirit of Memorial Day on Independence Mall last weekend – except, perhaps, for the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest qualifier that was held on Saturday just steps away from the “Sea of Tombstones,” also known as Arlington-North.
The spectacle of the crowd cheering on participants who forced the famed hot dogs to their stomach’s capacity and beyond made for a bizarre, if not morose, contrast against the backdrop of what resembled a scaled down version of the revered Arlington National Cemetery.
A visit to lay wreaths at Arlington Cemetery in October 2005 by Vietnam veteran, Bill Perry, and his subsequent arrest later that night outside the White House in a “die-in” prompted Perry’s vision of creating this growing memorial. Perry, who joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1969 and testified at the original Winter Soldier two years later was a combat paratrooper who was wounded in action. Some 40 years later, he still struggles with combat PTSD.
On his decision to create this memorial, Bill recalls, “In October 2005, Col. Ann Wright, Cindy Sheehan, Gold Star Dad Juan Torres and others went to Arlington to place some funeral wreaths because it was the day after 2,000 deaths. That evening, we all got locked up in front of the White House and they caged us in a holding area where we were separated by a chain link fence, and that’s when I decided to do Arlington-North on Veterans Day weekend. We made the first 2,000 markers. We began putting photos and bios on the faux tombstones on Memorial weekend, 2006.” [video news coverage]
In a time when the caskets of fallen servicemen and women are hidden from the public eye and so few U.S. families have members serving in the military, the “Sea of Tombstones” offers a visual that ”brings it home” for the public. “I want people to have a grasp on the enormity of 4083,” explained Bill.
Accomplishing this is no easy task and can only be explained as a labor of love. “The setup alone, depending on the turnout of volunteers, takes 6 to 8 hours. There are four heavy duty weekends,” he describes, “of cutting, drilling, sawing, painting and printing out 4,000 photos and bios and laminating them which have to be replaced at least once per year because they fade.
Despite the long stretch of lawn, only around 2000 markers were able to fit this year as the Department of Interior no longer allowed the veterans group to utilize a section of lawn at the Market Street quadrant. “What burns me up,” protested Bill, “Is that’s the one that catches all the foot traffic from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.”
That prime piece of real estate this year was relegated by the Park Service for Saturday’s hot dog eating contest.
To the casual observer, though, the perfect rows of white-painted markers appeared to go on endlessly - not unlike the war that is now in its sixth year.
Above, visitors read a statement by the Delaware Valley Veterans for America: “This Display represents those Americans, who had their lives taken from them and us. It is not intended to argue the politics of the Iraq War, only to symbolically show the real cost to the public and especially to those Unaffected Americans with no direct or indirect personal involvement. Please reflect and pray for these Americans and Our Military Personnel Presently Operational in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thank you, Delaware Valley Veterans for America.”
Asked about the reception the project receives from passersby, Bill who spent around 50 hours on-site over the four days the exhibit ran recounts “Almost everybody’s receptive to it. Criticism is very rare - I’d say over the whole weekend, there were only two people who came through who were just looking for an argument. Two out of maybe a thousand I spoke to. About 15,000 people come through and I speak to about a thousand. I play taps about every half hour to an hour depending on how I feel you know and after that there are always 5 or 10 people who tell me how wonderful it was. They like it.”