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'Arlington West' Marks Iraq Deaths

A peace activist seeking 'powerful imagery' plants a field of crosses to represent American fatalities in Mideast.

March 08, 2004|David Downs | Special to The Times

SANTA BARBARA — Peace activist Stephen Sherrill has marched and shouted in dozens of antiwar demonstrations in his lifetime, but it was his silent protest that touched thousands of people.

Every Sunday since early November, on the sand next to Stearns Wharf, Sherrill has planted what is now a field of white crosses -- a sobering tribute to America's fallen in Iraq.

Sherrill said he had put the crosses on display to create "a visual representation" of the cost of the Iraq war in American dead.

"People can read numbers in a newspaper article and just breeze right by the number," he said. "But to actually see objects, each object representing a life, is a powerful imagery."

Sherrill, a 55-year-old carpenter, said his greatest hope was that the idea would spread.

Photographs of his "Arlington West" cemetery have appeared in American and European newspapers, and the protest has spawned similar monuments in Santa Monica and Oceanside.

Moreover, the antiwar group Veterans for Peace plans additional exhibits of the "Arlington West" cemetery in Huntington Beach, elsewhere in Orange County, and in San Francisco and Santa Cruz, as well as cities in Florida, Maine and Michigan, said Wilson Powell, executive director of Veterans for Peace.

Sherrill said he had come up with the idea because the almost daily count of human lives lost in Iraq was too abstract.

"The original idea I had was for full-size cardboard cutouts of soldiers," he said. "The crosses were Plan B, but we instantly understood its impact and started making it better."

At the site, now frequently visited by tourists and locals, half a dozen American flags and more than 500 crosses shimmer in the bright sun. Most crosses bear the name, rank, age and hometown of a member of the U.S. military.

Taps sounds from a small stereo. Emotions of visitors range from sadness to rage, said Lane Anderson, Veterans for Peace chapter president in Santa Barbara.

"Some were just standing up on the wharf saying provocative things like, 'You don't care about them,' pointing at the crosses," Anderson said. "But most people have been very positive."

"When I first saw it I was very angry. I didn't want to see it," said Shawn Rickman, a Santa Barbara resident who was raised in Galveston, Texas. "The more I thought about it, though -- those are individual lives."

"Washington, D.C., is where they need it, on the White House lawn," said Joe Tighe, a retired electrician with a grandson serving in Iraq. "The fact that they do it every Sunday shows a great love for humanity. It's an amazing fixture of the Santa Barbara community."

Strangers drop off donations to support the purchase of more crosses, and volunteers from Veterans for Peace in Santa Barbara and Santa Monica pledge to keep their Arlington Wests going, weather permitting, every Sunday until the troops come home.

Sherrill said the chance to take part in thought-provoking conversation is enough to keep him making crosses week after week.

"I was just misting up at first," said Frank Borreani, 61, of the Bay Area. "All of these people lost their dreams. This whole beach could be full of crosses before this is over."

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