Too Many Crosses to Bear

Arlington West Cross Count Stops at 3,000

by Ethan Stewart

On the final day of 2006 — and a matter of hours after Saddam Hussein was executed — the official death toll of U.S. servicemembers serving in Iraq reached 3,000 with the passing of Dustin Donica. The death of the 22-year-old Texas-born infantryman capped off the bloodiest month of fighting in the past year.

While Donica’s passing marked a grim milestone for the entire country, it has a particularly painful implication for organizers of the weekly Arlington West (AW) war memorial. Although the crosses will continue to be erected in the sand next to Stearns Wharf every Sunday, they will no longer literally reflect the deaths of servicemembers but rather will serve as a symbolic reminder. From here on out, no matter how many more American men and women die in the line of duty in Iraq, the number of wooden crosses will remain at 3,000. As Dan Seidenberg, a member of Veterans for Peace — the organization behind the all-volunteer effort — regretfully explained, “The logistics of this thing have just gotten to be too much. …We will still be there every Sunday; we just won’t be making any more crosses.”

On the first Sunday of November 2003, several peace activists, many in them veterans, gathered in the sand on East Beach in the early morning hours to set up the first Arlington West war memorial. That first informal display of 340 wooden crosses led to a weekly Santa Barbara tradition that has continued ever since. Through summer sun and winter rain, the number of crosses in the sand has grimly grown each week to reflect the reported number of U.S. casualties. Last Sunday’s display of 3,000 crosses covered nearly an acre of prime beach and weighed more than one ton when loaded onto a trailer. More than 800 of the crosses — all of which were handmade and painted by AW founder Steve Sherrill — bear the names of soldiers whose loved ones have visited Arlington West. The memorial — erected smack in the middle of Santa Barbara’s tourist epicenter — has garnered national attention and inspired spin-off installations across the country. It has also served as the focal point of an increasingly politicized local antiwar sentiment, and — perhaps most importantly — as a physical space where the family and friends of the fallen can mourn.

But several months ago, faced with increasingly daunting logistics and a then-depleted volunteer core, a committee was formed by some of the longtime organizers to sort out the future of Arlington West. According to organizer Ron Dexter, the committee decided to set the 3,000 limit, regardless of the influx of new volunteers. “When it comes down to it, the visual impact of 3,000 versus 4,000 isn’t much,” Dexter explained. “The message pretty much stays the same.”

Despite the memorial’s shifting into a more symbolic role, Dexter expressed hope about the future of Arlington West. He pointed to the new faces getting involved and the overwhelmingly positive public feedback that volunteers receive each week as evidence of AW’s continued importance.

“To put it mildly, I think more and more people are beginning to realize this war wasn’t the best idea,” he said. Dexter feels the 3,000 limit will not diminish the memorial’s honorific significance for servicemembers killed after Donica, such as casualties 3,001 Lawrence Carter William Newgard and 3,002, who were killed in an explosion in Iraq’s Diyala province on Monday. “Really what keeps us there each week is when people come to visit a specific cross, and that isn’t going to change,” he explained. To that end, Veterans for Peace will be prepared to honor future casualties by keeping an updated list of the deceased, ready at a moment’s notice to dedicate one of the unnamed crosses should a friend or family member come looking.

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