Posted March 10, 2005
The California Aggie
Anti-war memorial stirring passions among parents of deceased
By Seth Hettena, Associated Press
ESCONDIDO, Calif. - It took four hours to unpack the 1,513 pairs of black military boots and arrange them in rows - four hours to turn a sunsplashed park into a stark reminder of the human toll of the Iraq war.
The display stretched longer than a football field and the scene was as quiet as a cemetery when Michael Alegre walked through it Thursday to pay his respects.
"It just hurts me how they sacrificed all these for us," the 43-year-old resident of this town northeast of San Diego said as he gazed as the rows and rows of boots.
The American Friends Service Committee, a branch of the pacifist Quaker church, created the "Eyes Wide Open" exhibit in January 2004 to drive home the cost of war. It began in Chicago with 500 boots and soon began touring the country, growing along the way. It arrived on the West Coast this week as divisive as the war itself.
The exhibit is especially polarizing to families mourning loved ones whose loss is marked by a pair of black boots: To some, it is a cathartic, fitting memorial in a nation they say seems largely anesthetized to the pain of a distant war; for others, it's an outrage tormenting them in their grief.
Nine families have donated their sons' military boots to be used in the exhibit, and others have leant time and support. (Most of the boots come from military surplus stores.) Another two dozen families have asked to have their loved ones' names removed from the exhibit.
Among them is Georgette Frank, who said "Eyes Wide Open" defamed the memory of her son, Marine Lance Cpl. Phillip Frank, by linking him with a political agenda he never would have supported.
"There's a difference between honoring our fallen and using them as pawns," said Frank of Elk Grove Village, Ill. "That's what I feel this 'Eyes Wide Open' is doing - is using them as pawns."
Frank said she and her husband believe the "naive" peace movement only encourages insurgents in Iraq with the message that the unending violence will lead the United States to withdraw its troops. She said her son, felled by a sniper's bullet last year in Fallujah at age 20, was committed to bringing freedom and democracy to Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
"How can I be against the war when this is what my son went to do?" she asked. "And you know what, he succeeded on the Sunday when the Iraqis voted."
Christine M. Dybevik of Coos Bay, Ore., was angered the name of her son, Marine Lance Cpl. Gary Van Leuven, was used without her permission. Van Leuven, 20, was killed last year in a fierce fight in Husaba along the Syrian border.
"This road back from hell is hard enough without having to defend my son's name in a political arena," Dybevik said. "Our sons made the ultimate sacrifice and they did it for the American way of life and not for some political view."
The American Friends Service Committee said it removes names from the boots on request, although the names are still read out loud during events.
Cindy Sheehan takes the opposite view. She called the exhibit a wonderful memorial to her son, Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, who died in an ambush in Sadr City last year at age 24. She has left tissues, notes and many tears on the boots that bear the name of her son and plans to donate his real boots later this month.
"If some people look at it and they're offended by it maybe they should be," said Sheehan, who lives in Vacaville. "I'm in unbearable pain every second of every day because of only one pair of those empty boots."
She said the exhibit is also a fitting reminder in a nation that has banned media coverage of America's war dead as their remains arrive in flag-draped caskets.
"They're bringing home our kids under cover of darkness like they're ashamed of them," Sheehan said.
Fernando Suarez del Solar of Escondido has donated the boots worn by his son, Lance Cpl. Jesus Suarez del Solar, 20, who was killed during the March 2003 Iraq invasion.
"We don't need more empty boots," Suarez del Solar said. "We need the people inside the shoes home with their families in peace."
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