A ‘Sea of Tombstones’ in Philadelphia Brings Memorial Day Remembrances to a New Level

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.”  

“People just come to us and ask us questions. You get to reach out to the international tourists, people from Missoula, Montana, Peoria and Minnesota Falls.” 

“Even the active duty people come out. We had about 7 guys who were in training over at Fort Dix. They came in and they all saluted the inverted rifle and helmet and boots and there were a lot of other active duty people and they all liked it. Six guys from Pennsylvania National Guard from right around this area were all killed around the same time and they draw a lot of people. They want to see Nate Detample and “Gerry” Pellegrini and all these guys [story].  

 

A young veteran kneels on the ground, his right hand touching the marker of a friend. He shakes his head, “Always joking man, he was funny as hell. We’d sit around the firehouse just laughing and we ended up in the same unit together and we would sit around together cracking jokes all the time and having a good time.” He pauses and shakes his head again, “The last one I would have expected – you know?” A loved one leans in to embrace him. 

For some, last weekend’s visit was not their first to this unique memorial. The Moon family of Levittown, PA returned again this weekend to visit. Their son, Army staff Sgt. Jae Sik Moon was 21 when he was injured in an IED blast while riding on patrol. He died two weeks later in Baghdad on Christmas Day 2006. 

 

Many families, like the Moons, leave flowers and personal messages for their loved ones. Arlington-North offers them an opportunity to reflect and to share their stories with others. There is a sense of peacefulness and an abundance of support from organizers, veterans, other families and even tourists passing by. 

2nd LT. Emily J Perez was a graduate of West Point who deployed to Iraq as a Medical Service Corps officer. At 23, she was the first female African-American officer to die in Iraq. She was killed when a makeshift bomb exploded nearby during combat operations near Najaf.   

Emily’s uncle, M/Sgt Ellis Dean USA (Ret), a Korean and Vietnam Paratrooper also came to pay his respects and remember his niece. A small group gathered around as he proudly shared her many accomplishments.

He then recalled the day he heard the news. “Her grandmother called me and she said, ‘Dean, I got some sad news. My granddaughter, your niece, was killed yesterday in Iraq.’ I just couldn’t believe it.”  

He was then handed the marker with her name and picture. On it, he wrote “We all will never forget you. Rest in Peace. Your Uncle Ellis. As the mock tombstone was held in front of him, he saluted while Bill Perry played taps. For a full minute all foot traffic on the mall came to a standstill in solemn respect.  

 

Many visitors, particularly the children, are surprised by the number of women represented in the memorial. Of the almost 100 U.S. female deaths in Iraq, 60 are confirmed “hostile” fatalities.  

Also recognized by the organizers are PTSD related suicides. The Army reported Thursday that 115 soldiers committed suicide last year, the highest level on record.  But, this was already being discussed at the 2006 Arlington-North Veterans Day. Below, a young girl asks Bill why PTSD suicide happened in Iraq. As Bill comments, “Kid gloves are required for these poignant moments.”  

 

Asked about his own battle with post-traumatic stress and how he manages it, Bill offers, “What’s therapeutic for me is being a Service Officer for Disabled American veterans and helping the Iraq veterans get what they deserve in terms of a good evaluation and good treatment and good compensation from the VA. That’s what I thrive on.” 

What motivates him to continue to sponsor this event in which he and others give so much of themselves? “The tearful thank you’s and heartfelt embraces.”  

  

Long after the Moon family left for the day, a young boy happened upon their son’s marker. He stood motionless contemplating the image before him. His eyes eventually reading the words left behind by the soldier’s mother,  

 

“I love you so much. I miss you so much. Mom.”  

If, indeed, Memorial Day is a day of remembrance, the members of Delaware Valley Veterans for America and all the volunteers involved, have gone above and beyond the call of duty.    

To learn more about this exhibit that is displayed on both Memorial and Veterans Day along with a few smaller displays throughout the year and to donate much needed and appreciated funds, please visit: http://www.arlington-libertybell.net/   

photo credits: Jack Kline, Peter Brunner, Cheryl Biren-Wright

additional video by Monique Frugier

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