The Veterans for Peace wage their own battle at the Arlington West Memorial in Santa Monica, but theirs is against no traditional enemy.
“Mommy, are there real bodies in there?”
“What are the red crosses for?”
These are among the questions that young children ask their parents as they pass through the Arlington West Memorial at the Santa Monica pier. No, there are no bodies, and each of the red crosses represents 10 American soldiers who died fighting in the War on Terror. But these questions, however simple, strike deeper to the hearts of all Americans.
The questions are like those of parents asking George W. Bush why their children had to die in a country more than 6,000 miles away.
Or do the children’s questions represent the lack of information that Americans have about the war in Iraq?
Whether the children’s questions mean anything, they are a sign that the Veterans for Peace are completing their mission with the Arlington West Memorial.
The mission of the Veterans for Peace in putting together the Arlington West Memorial is to honor the fallen and wounded; to acknowledge the human cost of war; to provide a place to grieve; to encourage dialogue between citizens with varied points of view; and to educate the public about the needs of those returning from war.
What better way to encourage dialogue about the war and acknowledge the human cost of war than by educating children.
Every Sunday morning, volunteers and members of the Veterans for Peace, a non-profit educational and humanitarian organization dedicated to the abolishment of war, arrive in the misty haze to begin setting up one of the most haunting sights in Southern California, a memorial of more than 1,000 crosses.
At the entrance of the memorial, a sign displays the number of U.S. troops that have been killed. In two weeks, the number went from 2,742 dead to 2,791. The number of wounded and injured is also displayed.
Tourists, residents and beach bums, mostly armed with sunglasses, towels, beach chairs and sunscreen, walk through the memorial on a wooden path to the beach. A few stop and look for a few seconds and move on. Do their sunglasses block the sight of the crosses? Are these people – in direct view of the most haunting representation of the casualties of war – just as blind as most Americans are to the War on Terror?
The memorial is a sea of crosses, stretching over the beach. Mostly white wooden crosses, each representing one death in the War on Terror, occupy the beach, but a single red row cuts through the white expanse. Stakes topped with the Star of David and others with crescent moons are scattered throughout.
“We’re hoping the red crosses won’t dominate the white crosses,” said Vietnam veteran and Veterans for Peace member Michael Lindley.
The red crosses are used as a way to save space at the memorial. The memorial is restrained to the small area because of sunbathers, according to Roxanne Kaimi, a volunteer with the Veterans for Peace.
The limitation of space and the use of the red crosses add to the feeling of loss and sorrow at the memorial.
“It makes a point,” Lindley said. “You can see what 2,000 deaths looks like.”
Wendy Fairbanks, a volunteer with the Veterans for Peace, has been helping for a year.
“I’ve come down every week,” she said. “There’s something terribly special about (the memorials).”
“The real story is the people that bring memorials down and keep adding to them,” she added.
Personal memorials are set up at many of the crosses, like that of Spc. Omead H. Razani, 19, of Iran and Los Angeles.
Spc. Razani’s personal memorial has messages from his family and from other service members. A gold star on a memorial means that a family member left a message, and a silver star is from another service member.
Other memorials are covered with personal mementos like dog tags, stuffed animals, rosaries and other items.
One row has eight crosses that have feathers tied to them. In the middle of the eight sits an American flag with a Native American man imposed on the flag. The crosses represent soldiers from the Navajo and Lakota Sioux nations.
On another row, a Bible sits open to Psalm 23 in front of a cross with three daisies – the verse about the valley of the shadow of death is a grim reminder of the perilous journey U.S. soldiers embark on in the War on Terror.
Each week, coffins draped with American flags are placed in their own row to honor the soldiers killed that week. One week there were 29 deaths – two weeks later, 26 more.
“It’s very depressing,” Kaimi said. There were weeks with only six deaths, some with 11. “Things seem to have gotten really out of hand. It seems to me that it’s only getting worse.”
Kaimi became a volunteer after coming to the memorial on her own time.
“I used to just walk down here every Sunday. I picked a soldier, and I would just come and write him a note and put it on here,” she said. “Somebody said ‘Well, you’re here every week, why don’t you volunteer?’ It’s one of the best things I do.”
“The beach is beautiful in the morning; nobody is here, it’s nice and calm,” she added. “There’s a great camaraderie with us down here; we really work together. It’s kind of our own group therapy.”
Kaimi fears for the well-being of the soldiers returning home to an uninformed country.
“In the past, (in a) country at war, people were sending cookies. There was always something that people were called upon to do to help,” she said. “Now, it’s go shop. I mean, people are so tuned out; it’s not even looked at.”
“So when they (soldiers) come home, they’re so surprised. They can’t connect with anybody except the guys they served with,” she added. “It’s like nobody else knows (what they’ve gone through).”
What will happen to the veterans of the War on Terror? Will we be adding another 35,000 veterans to the streets of Los Angeles?
The Veterans for Peace are doing their part to make sure veterans get the support they need when they return from the war.
“We have something called Soldier’s Project with about 50 volunteer psychologists that are on call and we try to do referrals and we have a G.I. hotline, trying to support the ones that are coming home,” Kaimi said. “We’re all really concerned about these guys coming back; they’re in bad shape. Jobs? They’re not gonna find jobs, housing.”
As the war progresses on its downward spiral, the parallels to the war in Vietnam become more apparent.
“The president says he’ll leave before the next president (is elected),” Lindley said. “But we don’t see no end to it.”
But the Veterans remain hopeful.
“They believe in peace – they think it’s possible to have peace,” Lindley said.
“Some (volunteers) get tired, some get very emotional, but they stay focused.”
Through the work of the Veterans for Peace, civilians can rest assured that just as officials are advancing and propelling this war, there is a dedicated group of servicemen and women, their families and volunteers, who are working hard each week to ensure the safety and safe return of U.S. troops.
Their work of spreading the truth, opening dialogue and ensuring the safe return of the troops can be summed by one of the messages placed on a cross:
“You died because of a lie. I promise I will never stop until you are all home safe.”
– The big sis of a Marine. Bring them home.