Ere the dawn of Sunday morning, as the Hollywood scenesters head home from a night of partying and the remainder of the city sleeps, a group of veterans gathers on the western edge of the United States to honor lives lost in the Middle East.
Arlington West Santa Monica, a project of Veterans for Peace, is a nonpartisan and nonsectarian memorial set up north of Santa Monica Pier every Sunday, from dawn to dusk. Volunteers erect crosses for the American soldiers who have died: each white cross represents a single life, while the red crosses signify ten lives lost. Flag-draped coffins are brought for each of the soldiers killed during the previous week, marked with a blue cross.
“We do this because we want to show that we care about the veterans, we don’t want what happened to the Vietnam veterans to happen again,” says Michael Lindley, a member of the Veterans for Peace and a Vietnam veteran.
At 6 a.m. most people are asleep, warm in their beds. Just a few fishermen, joggers, and homeless people populate the beach, meager company for the six volunteers already setting up the more than 3,500 crosses, crescents, and Stars of David.
“We try to include everybody, [and] we rarely have problems with Iraq veterans because they understand why we are here. It’s emotional, and it gives them a chance to personalize a memorial for their friends, soldiers they knew who died,” Lindley says.
“This is a nonpartisan memorial, we try to keep it neutral, but we are politically active away from the memorial,” Lindley says.
Even so, it’s hard for volunteers to keep a neutral stance.
“My dad was a World War II veteran, and my sons went to Iraq,” says Norris Baca, a volunteer who enlisted for the Vietnam War. “Growing up, I never realized how many people in my community (in South Central) had congressional honors and Purple HeartsÖ For many
immigrants, they are proud of their sons being in the army and don’t know what’s going on in the world.
“This is why I come, because immigrants join to be ‘American,’ because they want to prove themselves, but they come back with problems and they can’t talk about it.”
Kat Lillibridge, a 17-year-old from the Redlands chapter of CodePink, comes to Arlington West with her mother and grandmother.
“I live in a very conservative community and five guys from my high school are all out here [memorialized],” Lillibridge says. “They all died within two years of deployment, but they didn’t get anything beyond an article in the paper. They were young, guys I knew.
“I don’t want to put out any more memorials for any ages, that’s why I’m here.”
Corla Coles, Lillibridge’s grandmother and leader of CodePink’s Redlands chapter, agrees.
“I was president of an organization where I had to be politically neutral,” Coles says. “I’d write letters from home and be active then, but once I stepped out of my house I had to be completely neutral, and it got to the point where I couldn’t do it anymore. So I come here about once a month, and I read the names of soldiers for the people who can’t be here, for the people who can’t read the names.”
John Collier brings his tenth- and 11th-grade history students from Fairfax High School to Arlington West as part of a 15-hour community service requirement.
“It’s important for them to get involved in their community and see what is going on in the world,” Collier says. “I think when the memorials are set up they really grasp that these crosses are individual people who have died at war. Last year there was a corps of about six students who felt this cause was important enough that they came almost every weekend, to help set up the crosses.”
One of the youngest volunteers, 13-year-old Dominique Sarte, has been going to Arlington West for about two months.
“I come because war isn’t right. We’re terrorizing Iraq the way they terrorized us,” Sarte says.
His grandfather, Allen Anderson, comes from Thousand Oaks at least every other weekend, he says.
“My father served in the Army Air Corps in World War II — this was before they had the Air Force — and went to Vietnam even though he was a master sergeant,” Anderson says. “So I come because I believe in the memorial and feel bad for the families who are left behind.”
Throughout the day, various onlookers stop to take in the memorial. Tourists take pictures with the signs bearing statistics: 3,849 soldiers dead, 57,355 wounded, 11 killed in the last week. Parents explain to their children that each cross represents a soldier who died in war.
“It’s memorable, something like this sticks in your head,” say AJ Good and Chenoa Smith, visitors from Encinitas. “This is why we need to make a difference.”
At Argonaut press time, CNN reported that 2007 was the deadliest year for U.S. troops in Iraq.
“We support democracy, we support the veterans, and we support freedom — but in a different way that the government pursues it,” Lindley says. “The best way to support our troops is to bring them home.”
Veterans for Peace has planned a three-day memorial to coincide with Veterans’ Day, with set-up beginning Saturday, November 10th, and various events lasting through Monday.
Information, (323) 934-3451.