Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Faces of the Fallen

By Lori Perdue

Arlington National Cemetery is a somber and quiet place.

In all of my recent time in D.C., I had not yet taken the trip across town to visit the landmark final resting-place of so many Americans. Until today, I had not visited Arlington since childhood. Col. Ann Wright asked yesterday if anyone would be interested in taking the drive over today (due to a light legislative schedule) suggesting we see the Women In Military Service for America Memorial and Museum. I immediately agreed to accompany her. A Veteran myself, I couldn’t decline the invitation, and I felt the time was right to refresh my memory of the grounds and explore the thoughts and feelings that visiting might stir in me.

A couple of other residents of the CP House here in D.C. were interested in going on the ‘field trip’. Lydia had a dual purpose in going; her mother is buried there, and she had crafted a banner honoring the women who have lost their lives in this war. She brought along the banner, which features the faces of the fallen female soldiers in Iraq to show to the curator of the museum. Lydia packed the banner with her from Florida for use in our Mothers’ Day action. Seeing it for the first time, I was unprepared for my own reaction. It touched me deeply, reminding me that my feelings about the military casualties are a very emotional trigger and heavy motivation for my activism. I have encountered “Faces of the Fallen” displays many times at actions and Marches but I was unaware that I would feel so much more strongly for the female casualties. I was immediately reduced to tears the first time I saw Lydia’s banner days before Mothers’ Day and was strangely drawn to the faces on it throughout its’ display at the event, stopping each time I passed it to peer at my lost sisters.

Desiree (House Mom) from Texas also came along. As one of the first to join Cindy Sheehan in the ditch in Crawford, Texas this teacher/librarian is dedicated to the anti-war cause beyond question. Col. Ann told us a little about the Museum and Memorial and we were prepared for a solemn afternoon, however; we were not aware that in the Museum section was a memorial artistic display of the “Faces of the Fallen” from 2003 to 2006.

Various artists’ renderings of our honored fallen are displayed in many different media. There are carvings and sculpture and paintings or drawings of many types- pencil, oil, watercolor, etc. The pictures and paintings were touching by themselves, leaving me with an aching lump in my throat. To compound the emotionality of the display there are messages left behind by loved ones and family members attached to nearly every single casualty’s portrait.

Some of the messages created a physical ache in my heart, and some refuse to leave my mind. Especially touching was the little girl’s shaky cursive writing describing how much her mom misses her fallen father and her assurance that she is being very good, and the mother whose note tells of how she thinks of her lost son every time the phone rings. I was puzzled by the dignified act of a father that could leave nothing but his business card with “Love, Dad” inscribed below his engraved name. I smiled despite the tears falling down my face at the widowed young wife that has left a series of conversational notes under her husband’s portrait laid out neatly to be read, the final one mentioning his favorite baseball team playing well recently. I cannot describe the angst that bubbled up seeing pictures of babies growing up, left clipped to portraits of their parents, who will never witness those smiling, chubby-faced moments.

I also cannot explain the mixed emotions I feel about the “Dear Soldier” notes, obviously written as a school assignment and delivered during another ‘field trip’, by young children thanking dead Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines for their service. They were many, all on the same notepaper, all in the juvenile block printing recognized by Desiree as early elementary handwriting. Their messages were disconcerting to me. “I think it is so cool that you went to war,” wrote one student. “Thank you for helping people there and protecting us in our homes,” wrote another. A third wrote, “I’m sorry you had to die to keep us free.” There are dozens of such messages, the sentiments repeated as if formulated from suggestions on a blackboard.

I do not question the genuine feeling these students have for the deaths of these honorable men and women, but I wonder if they (and their teachers) understand the ideals that are being reinforced in their immature minds with such a project as part of their curriculum. I was troubled thinking about it and mentioned my discomfort to Desiree, a teacher that quit her job to help stop this war. She said, flatly, “I noticed them,” and asked if I had found Casey Sheehan’s picture. The memorial was arranged by date of death, and finding him was as simple as walking down the aisle until we reached 04/04/04. His is an oil painting on canvas, with a note from his Mom. “Casey Boy” she called him, “you’re still alive to me.” I stood there for long moments and surveyed the column of faces that perished before Cindy’s son, the faces of those who died before I found permission to speak out when Cindy sat down in that ditch with my friend Desiree beside her.

I turned away to leave Des with Casey’s memorial and a few steps down the chronological line I found another face I recognized and pictures that were familiar to me. Alex Arredondo’s image hangs on the bulletin board in the CODEPINK House with contact information for his fiercely dedicated and loving father, Carlos. Among the mementos left with Alex’s memorial is a bracelet that reads Support Our Troops Bring Them Home NOW. As of today, May 21st 2007, 3422 American Military Service personnel have lost their lives in Iraq.

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