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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