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A place that honors soldiers every Sunday
Andy and Brenda Freeman of Peru recently visited a memorial in Santa Monica, CA called Arlington West, a project of Veterans For Peace that offers a graceful, visually and emotionally powerful, place for reflection. They were there to do a cross for their son-in-law, U.S. Army Pfc. Buddy McLain (seen at upper left), who was one of six 101st Airborne soldiers killed when they were ambushed on Nov. 29, 2010 by an Afghan Border Police recruit in Afghanistan. At right, Andy Freeman places a cross for Buddy McLain, then poses with some of the pictures placed beside his cross. (Photos courtesy of Brenda Freeman)
REGION -- Every Sunday from sunrise to sunset, within view of the Pacific Ocean, volunteers called Veterans For Peace set up a temporary memorial with some 3,000 crosses for U.S. soldiers on a section of beach next to the world-famous pier at Santa Monica, CA.
Some people might consider it a way to acknowledge the cost of war. For others, it provides a place to grieve. But all would agree that it's a majestic sight.
This temporary sand cemetery, called Arlington West, typically takes four to five hours to set up, is visited by many from morning to dusk, and then is taken down until the following Sunday.
Making the trip there recently was a couple from Peru, Andy and Brenda Freeman. They are parents of Chelsea McLain, whose husband, U.S. Army Pfc. Buddy McLain, was one of six 101st Airborne soldiers killed when they were ambushed on Nov. 29, 2010 by an Afghan Border Police recruit in Afghanistan.
Seeing this tribute, Brenda noted, "It was awesome, breath taking. Very emotional. I think people on this coast should just be aware that these things go on."
She said she heard about this from her daughter, who was in California a year earlier. This year, they decided to do a cross for Buddy.
Brenda said they were planning a California vacation anyway, but "we planned a big part of our trip around doing this. This was the highlight of my trip."
They left for a flight out there on Aug. 31 and returned on Sept. 10.
A photo button pin with the face of Buddy McLain went everywhere with them. "I took him everywhere. I wore him everyday with me from the day I left. I either had him on my coat or on my shirt. I feel like he's my guardian angel when I'm flying," said Brenda.
She learned what this was about on the website, but was not prepared for the feelings it brought to her when they arrived there. When they arrived around 9 a.m., Brenda said the Veterans For Peace volunteers saw their buttons of Buddy McLain and came over to welcome them.
Brenda took photos as her husband placed a cross for Buddy in the cemetery. "He told me he broke down twice that day. It brought back a lot of memories. You stand there among all those crosses and say 'all these are dead soldiers' and the red crosses represent 10 each. They couldn't just keep putting out the white (crosses) because they ran out of beach space."
She said a lot of people walked by the cemetery on the way to the beach. "Some people looked at it as an anti-war thing. I looked at it as a memorial. There's a cross out there with his name on it and I want to personalize it. I think we did a good job with it. We added some Maine stickers. I'm not a Yankee fan but I bought a Yankee thing to put on there for him."
"While we were there, they had six widows who showed up and they did a cross for their husbands. And these widows get together so many times a year. Sometimes, they take their kids with them and they do different things. Other times, they leave the kids behind and it's just the wives that get together," Brenda said, adding, "They asked my daughter to get in on that. She's just not ready for that yet."
When the Freeman's first arrived there, they were the only ones at the cemetery. Brenda said the volunteers sometimes get discouraged when people don't show, but then "people like us come in and they see how it affects them and say 'this is why we're here.'"
She also videotaped the ceremony of Veterans For Peace carrying in six coffins onto the beach. They stayed until 3 or 4 p.m.
Brenda noted two of the Veterans For Peace volunteers, Linda Marasa and Susan Brodhead. "These two women have been doing this since it first started."
"Those people who work there were awesome. They don't get as much credit...that's 52 Sundays a year. And those two women have been best friends for 50 years and they said no matter what happens in their life, they get together on Sunday. That's their time together to do this," she noted, adding, "I told them that I'll be back and I'll be putting out crosses next time."
"I've already gotten two letters from them since we've been home. We must have made an impression on them. Now I'm going to send them some maple syrup and make her a really nice wreath for Christmas," said Brenda.
She said they will put Buddy's cross back up every Sunday. Brenda said she can send pictures to them throughout the year and they will put the pictures on a card on a stake next to his cross.
"Christmastime, I will send a miniature wreath for them to hang on his cross."
She noted there are still a lot of crosses without names. "I don't think the word gets out. We talked to a lot of people in California and they'd say, 'Oh, are you just visiting?' I'd say when planning Sunday around (this cemetery) and they'd say, 'I never heard of that.'"
Brenda said she has not been to Arlington Cemetery in Washington, D.C. However, her husband and their daughter, as well as Buddy McLain's parents, visited Arlington after they were invited to a briefing at the Pentagon on how Buddy McLain was killed.
"I felt really good about it. I can still look at that (looking at pictures she took during Arlington West) and cry. I can't imagine what his mother goes through. I'm just the mother-in-law. I go home, check the cemetery, make sure the flowers look good," she said.
From the Arlington West website, in accordance with the Veterans For Peace Statement of Purpose, the Arlington West Mission Statement is to remember the fallen and wounded to provide a place to grieve to acknowledge the human cost of war to encourage dialogue among people with varied points of view to educate the public about the needs of those returning from war.
To take in the full expanse of crosses, one stands breathless at the enormity of what one sees. Each cross, carefully positioned in the sand with a uniformity appropriate a memorial for this purpose, represents all American military personnel who've lost their lives in the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Upon deeper reflection, Arlington West also powerfully represents the path our country has embarked upon.
The “wall” of names has been replaced with pillars positioned where the public can review the frequently updated list of fallen American military personnel since day one of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The list contains the name, age, rank, branch of service, unit assigned to, date and place of the circumstance of death, as well as their hometown and state.
Due to logistical constraints, the number of new crosses was halted at just over 3000 even though the latest death toll has exceeded 4400. Adjacent to the placards is a sign containing the message: "At 3000 crosses, the Arlington West Memorial is 141 feet wide and 310 feet long. A memorial for the Iraqi dead would be 141 feet wide and 12.8 miles long."
The name, Arlington West, was given to the memorial by WWII veteran Ted Berlin and reflects the name of the national cemetery of the United States, Arlington National Cemetery, a burial place of honor for fallen war heroes. Arlington National Cemetery is the location of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and is also the final resting place for John F. Kennedy. Arlington West -- in a manner similar to "real" cemeteries -- is intended by the project organizers to be a place to mourn, reflect, contemplate, grieve, and meditate, to honor and acknowledge those who have lost their lives, and to reflect upon the costs of war.
Veterans For Peace, an official non-governmental organization (NGO) founded in 1985, includes men and women veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and other conflicts, as well as peacetime veterans. The group has published a 'how-to' for organising, planning and constructing and erecting Arlington West. Several other memorials have been erected by chapters of Veterans for Peace and other groups.