Laid out in rows stretching longer than a football field, 1,513 pairs of black military boots gave a sunsplashed park the quiet, somber mood of a cemetery.
The traveling exhibit, a reminder of the U.S. troops lost in Iraq , arrived on the West Coast in early March, as divisive as the war itself — especially for the families of the fallen men and women.
To some of the families, 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.
“There’s a difference between honoring our fallen and using them as pawns,” said Georgette Frank, who believes the exhibit defamed the memory of her son, Marine Lance Cpl. Phillip Frank, by linking him with an anti-war agenda he never would have supported.
The “Eyes Wide Open” exhibit, created by the American Friends Service Committee, a branch of the pacifist Quaker church, began its nationwide tour in Chicago with 500 boots — then the war’s death toll.
When the exhibit arrived in downtown San Diego, space was limited because of what the county and organizers said was a misunderstanding over a permit. It was then moved to Escondido, northeast of San Diego.
Nine families have donated their sons’ military boots for the exhibit, and others have provided time and support. Most of the boots come from military surplus stores.
Mother calls exhibit fitting reminder
Cindy Sheehan calls the exhibit a wonderful memorial to her 24-year-old son, Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, who died last year in an ambush in Sadr City. She has left tissues, notes and many tears on the boots that bear her son’s name and plans to donate them later this month.
Sheehan, who lives in Vacaville, 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.
“If some people look at it and they’re offended by it, maybe they should be,” she said. “I’m in unbearable pain every second of every day because of only one pair of those empty boots.”
About two dozen families, however, have asked that their loved ones’ names be removed from the exhibit. The committee said it removes names from the boots on request, although the names are still read aloud during events.
Frank said she and her husband believe the “naive” peace movement only encourages insurgents in Iraq with the message that continued 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 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.”
'The road back from hell'
Christine M. Dybevik of Coos Bay, Ore., was angered that 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.”
Fernando Suarez del Solar of Escondido supports the exhibit, and 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.”