Empty boots signify war’s human costs

The cold rain fell Monday on 2,744 pairs of empty boots. Lined up at Civic Center like crosses at Normandy, each represents a life lost in the war in Iraq.

Lance Cpl. Jose S. Marin-Dominguez Jr., 22, Kansas. Capt. Anthony R. Garcia, 48, Texas. Specialist Katrina Lani Bell-Johnson, 32, South Carolina.

Karen Meredith has seen the exhibit six times. It never gets easier.

The boots worn by her son, 1st Lt. Kenneth Michael Ballard, 26, of California, are there. She looks at them and remembers the sweet smell of the baby she once held in her arms.

"For me it’s overwhelming every time," she said.

When the exhibit began in January 2004, there were 504 pairs of boots.

Only 504.

Marq Anderson, national tour manager for "Eyes Wide Open," said the project was begun soon after President Bush’s "Mission Accomplished" speech on May 1, 2003, when U.S. casualties in the war numbered 139. "We decided we needed to do something to point out the human cost of the war," he said.

Visitors to the original display in Chicago found it so moving that the American Friends Service Committee decided to take it on the road. It’s been to more than 80 cities and it keeps getting bigger.

Nobody wanted it to go on this long. But on it goes to Macon, Ga.; Dayton, Ohio; San Antonio; Kalamazoo, Mich.; and on and on.

Part of the reason the sight of the boots is so affective is that most Americans have been spared images of this war. Pictures of soldiers returning in coffins are forbidden. News coverage from the battlefields has waned. There’s no draft to heighten the immediacy of the war for average folks, so it’s easy to forget.

Anderson doesn’t want that to happen.

"I enlisted in 1969. I was in the Vietnam War." He can’t stand it that Americans are losing interest in Iraq.

Lance Cpl. Lamont N. Wilson, 20, Oklahoma. Staff Sgt. Barry Sanford Sr., 46, Aurora, Colo.

"My son was a fourth-generation Army officer," said Meredith, who said she believes the U.S. needs a strong military. "But I don’t want one more family to hear, ‘We regret to inform you …."’

Meredith said she never supported the war in Iraq.

"It took me a long time to use the word ‘lie’ about this war," she said, but she believes she and her son and the rest of the world were deceived about the reasons for invading Iraq. "It was illegal."

Another sad commentary on the human cost of war is presented with the display of empty boots, this one created with funds from families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks. It features tiny shoes, tattered sandals and other footwear bearing the names of Iraqi civilians.

A poster tells of a Johns Hopkins University study that estimated Iraqi civilian casualties at 100,000 as of September 2004. Most were women and children.

Those who believe it may undermine support for the war have protested the exhibit. But as the size of the exhibit has grown, support for the war has plummeted and the protests have all but disappeared, Anderson said.

Last month, 776 U.S. troops were wounded in the fourth-highest month for casualties in the war so far. And while the exhibit is a poignant reminder of the lives lost, it doesn’t begin to catalog the suffering of the more than 20,000 soldiers wounded in the war.

Meredith has no patience with people who want to stay the course. She walks past all the empty boots standing at attention in the rain and says she believes the argument for staying in Iraq is just more dishonest political propaganda designed to make people weak and fearful.

She said she believes the troops should be withdrawn from Iraq and the world should begin dealing with the humanitarian catastrophe the war has created.

When? I asked.

She stopped beside her son’s empty combat boots and looked at the picture of her only child mottled with rain.

"Midnight tonight," she said.

Diane Carman’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached at 303-954-1489 or dcarman@denverpost.com.

Filed in: Media Coverage

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