"I thought the war in Iraq was over," I overheard someone say as I approached Arlington West on Father’s Day. With close to 140,000 troops still in Iraq and violence on the rise, the war is hardly over. Things are getting more unstable daily as the June 30th deadline for American troops to stop patrolling the cities and remain on their bases approaches.
It has been close to a year since I last visited Arlington West. The memorial makes me feel an intense sense of loss every time I visit. The sea of crosses makes the number of dead palpable. My visits to the memorial gave me the inspiration to go to Iraq and learn about the war firsthand. Returning, little has changed except for the memorial's scale. It takes all morning to fully set the memorial up. I recognize most of the volunteers, a core group that shows up every Sunday. Long tape measures are laid out, the crosses staked into the sand, and personal mementos and name cards are added before the symbolic coffins are carried out.
The death toll in Iraq for the week was three. In Afghanistan, it was seven. The last death totals posted at the memorial: 4315 in Iraq and 711 in Afghanistan, as of last weekend.
I met CLP (combat logistics patrol) Stephen Johnson who found his friend's name on the list of the fallen. He didn’t know about Arlington West and stumbled upon the memorial by chance while visiting Santa Monica. I spotted him as he fondled his dog tags while looking for a friend’s name on a panel with names of the dead. He was moved to tears as he made a card identifying his friend for one of the crosses. Their Humvee was hit with an IED while they were on a patrol in Sadr City in 2006. Stephen is permanently disabled, both his arm and brain damaged. In California, Stephen told me, vets can get medical marijuana for pain, much better than the pharmaceuticals that he was first offered by doctors. He moved to Long Beach from New Orleans. The war isn’t over for him.
In recent headlines, the governor of South Carolina confessed his extra-marital affair. Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson died and there is still unrest on the streets of Iran. The new totals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan is hardly considered breaking news, but they will be posted at Arlington West this Sunday.