The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been marked by some sobering milestones, the death of soldier number 4,000 in Iraq, 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan and the list goes on.
This year, Memorial Day marks another anniversary closer to home. It will be the fifth year that community volunteers gather in Bend to read the name of every soldier killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and related operations.The community vigil began as a way of personalizing and quantifying a conflict that had, in the mind of organizer Tracy Miller, been reduced to sound bites, slogans and statistics.
While most Memorial Day activities are centered upon celebrating the sacrifice of soldiers, Miller’s event is focused on counting the costs. After a decade of war, it’s a significant undertaking.
For half an hour at a crack, volunteers read the names of the more than 6,000 deceased soldiers and their hometowns, punctuated by a single thump of drumbeat. They will begin reading names around 8:30 a.m. and expect to finish some 12 hours later.
It’s a sobering and emotional undertaking for volunteer readers who come from around Central Oregon to lend their voices.
“When we see all the names, it makes it very real, and I really wish that sometimes people who don’t agree with us about the war can see the human costs. They’re young people and their lives are interrupted,” said Phil Randall, a retired teacher and longtime peace activist.
But for all the visceral reaction, Miller has kept the vigil a deliberately apolitical observation. She prohibits volunteers from bringing signs or wearing anti-war buttons or clothing. That restriction even extends to brandishing a peace sign, which in this context can be interpreted as a statement of protest.
“We don’t want someone to think this is anti-military,” Miller said. “It’s a memorial service. There are no speeches.”
Still she challenges anyone to sit down and listen as name after name is read for a couple of hours and then walk away without thinking a little differently about the cost of war.
Miller’s motivation, in fact, grew out of her own activism. She’s been a volunteer on the downtown peace corner asking drivers to honk for peace. And she was among the group that lobbied the Bend City Council to pass an “impeach Bush” resolution in the middle of the last decade.
It was during the impeachment campaign that Miller struck on the idea of a soldier memorial. Miller had gone to the Bend public library to print out a list of soldier’s names from a website that documented who had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Naively, she sent the job to the library printing station where she stood in disbelief as page after page of names piled up on the printer tray.
She ended up spending $60 on printing. And although the city council declined to wade into the impeachment fray, Miller found another use for the list. In May 2008, she tapped into her network of peace activists to organize the first Memorial Day soldier’s memorial.
Don Kunz was there from the outset. A retired English professor who actively protested the Vietnam War, Kunz opposes the wars in Iraq and the surge in Afghanistan. However, his opposition has evolved from his student protest days.
Today, he said he’s learned to distinguish between the “warrior and the war.” Kunz honors the sacrifice of the men and women who have given their lives and the countless others who have been injured during the conflict, even if he doesn’t support the underlying mission.
“Politicians tend to forget about the young men and women they send into harm’s way. Whatever we think about the conflict, we need to call attention to those who have suffered and died and those who continue to bear the burden,” Kunz said.
Over the years the event has drawn the interest and, in some cases, support of soldiers and the families and friends of fallen soldiers, some of whom have come by the event to pore over the dozens of white wooden blocks that bear the handwritten name of every fallen soldier.
This year, Miller, whose own father was a veteran, reached out to the Central Oregon chapter of the Band of Brothers, a veteran’s social group led by Dick Tobiason, a Vietnam veteran and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. It was absolutely critical to Tobiason, who also organizes the honor flights to Washington D.C. for local WWII veterans, that the event be non-political.
Once Miller assured him it was, Tobiason agreed to arrange to have the local color guard participate in the event.
Tobiason isn’t the only one with military ties who will be taking part. Stacy Stewart will be reading for the second year. A store clerk from La Pine, Steward has two sons enlisted in the military.
At the moment neither one of them is deployed overseas, but that could change. For her the list of names is a reminder of the sacrifices that mothers and sons have been making for more than a decade.
“It can be pretty emotional. I’m not a person who cries, but that can touch you. These are all somebody’s kids or fathers or brother,” Stewart said.
Soldier’s Memorial Day Reading
8:30 a.m. Mon, May 28.
Volunteers welcome, contact Tracy, 541-310-0701