Each Sunday, the sand just north of the Santa Monica Pier transforms into a sea of crosses.
Ever since the crosses were first put up in the sand in February 2004, the memorial known as Arlington West has been a place for visitors to grieve and pay their respects to the American soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice while fighting in Iraq.
Each of the U.S. military personnel who was killed since the War in Iraq began in March 2003 is represented with the placement of a white cross or another religious symbol every week at the memorial, a project created by the Los Angeles chapter of Veterans for Peace.
Just as 2006 was ending Sunday, December 31st, Arlington West volunteers placed the cross representing the 3,000th death of an American military member in Iraq. The total deaths represented was 3,009 as of Sunday, January 7th, with 11 Americans killed during the first week of the new year.
The memorial also makes reference to the number of wounded U.S. military personnel, 23,183 as of January 7th, and a separate board lists the names of fallen soldiers in the Afghanistan conflict.
Veterans for Peace members say the temporary memorial is intended to acknowledge the human costs and consequences of war, offer a place to grieve and contemplate, as well as to educate the public about the needs of those military members returning from war.
“We’re trying to reach people’s hearts and make them aware of the cost of war,” Veterans for Peace spokeswoman Tonia Young said of Arlington West.
For Corona resident Vickie Castro — whose only child, Jonathan, 21, was killed when a suicide bomber attacked a mess tent in Mosul, Iraq on December 21st, 2004 — Arlington West offers a sense of peace.
“It’s a place that can bring some comfort to be there,” said Castro, a math teacher at Centennial High School, where her son attended.
“I prefer to go there than to the cemetery because it’s pretty hard to look at his name in stone.”
Volunteers help set up the memorial by placing the crosses in rows across the sand every Sunday morning and also take down the crosses before sunset. For Veterans Day and most three-day holiday weekends, the memorial remains up overnight.
Over the New Year’s weekend, Arlington West volunteers marked the 3,000th U.S. military death with a candlelight vigil and the placement of tea candles in front of every other cross in the sand.
Chuck Nixon, a former U.S. Army medic who served in the Vietnam War and a member of Veterans for Peace, noted the significance as Arlington West has now represented over 3,000 American military lives lost in the Iraq War.
“When it got to be 1,500 we thought it was big, and the same with 2,000 and 2,500,” said Nixon, who was among the Veterans for Peace members who started the memorial effort.
“When is it going to be enough?”
Young also alluded to the cost of the war with a current death toll of more than 3,000 American soldiers.
“That’s a significant number to think about,” said Young, adding that 3,000 people is more than the number of lives lost in the terrorist attacks of September 11th.
As the American military death toll in Iraq continues to climb, Arlington West has run into an issue of space with the number of crosses on the Santa Monica beach.
Once the number of crosses surpassed 2,500, lifeguards advised Veterans for Peace that the memorial was close to encroaching on the swimming area and lifeguards needed enough room for potential rescues, Nixon said.
To help condense the memorial coverage area, Veterans for Peace cut the amount of space in between each cross and began painting the crosses red to represent ten military deaths instead of one.
The move was also done in an effort to conserve time in setting up and taking down the crosses, as the number of deaths continues to rise, Nixon said.
When Veterans for Peace began the memorial project with more than 500 crosses, the group didn’t think space would be an issue on the beach, Young said.
It is conceivable that most of the white crosses at Arlington West could turn red as the war progresses, she said.
As part of the memorial every Sunday, Arlington West volunteers lay flag-draped “symbolic” coffins for each of the soldiers who were killed during that week, and a blue cross is placed in front of each of the coffins.
Nixon noted that December had the highest number of American military casualties of any month last year.
More than 800 of the crosses have a name of a fallen military member attached to them, as either friends or family members have requested that their loved one be identified.
Castro said her son Jonathan’s name is identified on one of the crosses and she has also put pictures next to the cross to “put a face with the name” for visitors.
She called the Arlington West beach memorial a “beautiful place” that is in a location fitting to her son.
“The ocean is a place where he was comfortable at,” Castro said.
“He spent a lot of time at the beach.”
Castro’s visits to the memorial also allow her to meet with the many war veterans who have come to pay their respects to fellow soldiers, she said.
“I take comfort in being able to stand next to and communicate with some of his (Jonathan’s) brothers-in-arms,” Castro said.
Venice resident William Johnson, a former Navy lieutenant who fought in Vietnam, said he came to the memorial Sunday, January 7th, to share his grief for the fallen soldiers, but was also quick to express his frustration with the war and the Bush administration.
The memorial allows visitors to see firsthand the amount of lives that have been lost in the war, he said.
“They come here and they visualize it — they see the crosses that represent everyone who’s died,” Johnson said.
“I am not the only one here who I’ve seen with tears in their eyes.”
Veterans for Peace members say they plan to keep the memorial going for as long as the U.S. continues to fight in Iraq.
But the Veterans group continues to need volunteers for Arlington West and encourages any interested volunteers to come down to the sand north of the Santa Monica Pier Sundays for setup at 7:30 a.m. and takedown at dusk.