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The Nation

Oregon Memorial to Recent War Dead Runs Into Flak

Criticism of the project honoring soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan cites its timing, design.

September 10, 2006|Lynn Marshall | Times Staff Writer

SALEM, Ore. — A grieving couple's attempts to memorialize their son, as well as other soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, has run into a thicket of criticism about the project's timing, aesthetics and politics.

As Oregon prepares to begin construction of the Afghan-Iraqi Freedom Memorial here, some question whether it should be built while the fighting continues. Others find the memorial's scale daunting. And a panel of architects thinks it's ugly.

The project is the brainchild of Clay and M.J. Kesterson, who lost their son Erik, 29, an Army helicopter pilot in Iraq, in November 2003.

Clay says M.J. came up with the idea. "She was determined to make something positive happen.... All I wanted at that point was to crawl in a hole somewhere."

That "something" turned into years of fundraising, design meetings, collaborating with other military families and working with state government officials to create the memorial.

Designed by architect Jane Honbeck, a friend and neighbor of the Kestersons, the memorial consists of an oval pool with constantly moving water, lined with a stainless steel map of the world and an 8-foot bronze figure of a soldier down on one knee over the United States, with an arm outstretched.

It is to sit behind the Oregon Department of Veterans' Affairs building, a quiet, park-like space five blocks from the Capitol. There are now four war memorials on the site: one dedicated to all Oregonians lost in battle, a monument to World War I, a monument to all servicemen and -women, and one dedicated to the Korean War.

In early June, the Fellows of the Portland Chapter of the American Institute of Architects sent a letter to Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, calling the monument "inappropriate and ill-conceived." It also expressed "dismay that the monument should be built while the conflict continues, and even as more Oregonians are being dispatched into the war zones."

The Oregonian, the state's largest newspaper, said in an Aug. 20 editorial that "it is dangerously presumptuous at best, and disrespectful to soldiers at worst, to memorialize a war before knowing how it ends."

Jim Willis, director of the state Department of Veterans' Affairs and a Vietnam vet, doesn't see it that way.

"The status, the state of the war isn't relevant to honoring these men and women, these Oregonians who made the ultimate sacrifice," Willis says.

He points to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington as an example. "That's a war we lost, arguably, and it is one of the most visited memorials on the National Mall."

Willis says that he has heard from some veterans worried that the Oregon memorial could be seen as endorsing the Iraq war, but that the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

The new memorial has been reported as being 40 feet long, but Willis says that measurement includes the new sidewalk, which was designed to encircle the pool and to be wide enough for two wheelchairs to pass.

"That sidewalk is one of the great things about the project," Willis says. "When it's done, you will be able to walk from one memorial to another. There will be a clear path -- something we've never had."

The design was unveiled in public legislative hearings in mid-2005. The Legislature unanimously passed a bill mandating the construction of a memorial and allocating $100,000 toward the estimated $400,000 cost.

Gov. Kulongoski has been an advocate of the memorial from the beginning. He signed the bill into law in September 2005, and attended the ceremonial groundbreaking for the project in June.

Where were the architects and design professionals while all this was going on? Left out of the loop, says Andrew Wheeler, a Portland architect who brought the project to the attention of his colleagues this spring.

Oregon's budget problems caused the professional committee that oversees additions to the Capitol grounds to be suspended in 2003. An advisory committee formed to take its place met for the first time this spring, and its report lists many concerns about the monument.

"There is nothing redeeming about the design," Wheeler says. "It's out of scale to the site and will overwhelm the other memorials there."

Andrew Shanken, a professor of architecture at UC Berkeley who studies and teaches memorial architecture, says he isn't surprised Oregon is moving ahead before the end of the war. This, he says, is an era of memorial mania.

"After Oklahoma City, after 9/11, with all the attention on the 50th anniversary of World War II -- people are rushing to put up memorials, and every interest group wants to be a part of it.

"It is a good thing when they have to slow down and consider the process," Shanken says. "Most memorials are badly done and don't stand up to the test of time."

Clay Kesterson remembers that first meeting he and his wife held in their living room in Independence, Ore., for other families in the state that had lost a loved one in the conflicts.

"At that time," he says, "there were about 20 families. Erik was No. 9 on the list." Today, according to the governor's office, 69 soldiers with strong ties to Oregon have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kesterson says he doesn't understand people who say the memorial is meant to make a political statement. Though a strong supporter of the war, he is adamant that this memorial has nothing to do with that.

"These people just don't get it," Kesterson says. "This memorial is being built for one reason, and one reason only: to honor Oregon's fallen heroes from this conflict. Why should we wait 40 years to do that?"

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lynn.marshall@latimes.com

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