It was while weeping for his son, a soldier killed in Iraq, that Gregg Garvey realized what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
To commemorate Justin, 23, a sergeant with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, and show his love and grief, the father had designed a monument. The bronze memorial, a full-size model of an M-16 rifle thrust muzzle-down into the ground and topped by a helmet, telegraphs an immediate signal to onlookers: A soldier has died in war.
But while sitting on the porch of his home in rural Keystone Heights in northern Florida, Garvey decided it wasn’t enough to honor his child’s life and sacrifice in bronze. Then and there, Garvey, a sales consultant in the recreational vehicle industry, pledged that he would put one of the monuments in the hometown of each U.S. service member killed in Iraq and Afghanistan -- now 1,525 -- and wherever else the military might be ordered into harm’s way.
“They are my son’s brothers and sisters,” said Garvey, 50. “I have adopted every one of them, and they all deserve to be honored.”
That was in August 2003. Since then, to help keep his pledge, Garvey has raised more than $20,000 in contributions, and received a commitment from a metal foundry in the central Florida town of Sanford to manufacture the first five memorials at no charge.
Garvey has also designed a flag in tribute to the military’s dead, which he hopes will become as recognizable as the black POW-MIA flag of the Vietnam War era. He has been offering the flags for sale on his website (www.lesttheybeforgotten.org) to help underwrite the $7,500 he estimates it will cost to build each memorial. He has sold about 500 flags at $35 apiece.
“When I got word about my son, I felt totally helpless,” Garvey said. “You’ve got the worst pain you’ve ever felt in your life. You’ve got anger and overwhelming grief. I needed a place to channel all my feelings in a positive direction. I’m doing this for my son.”
He has received more than 100 inquiries about the memorials, he said, including 40 from service widows.
The first of what Garvey calls the “Lest They Be Forgotten” memorials honors Sgt. Jason D. Jordan, 24, of Elba, Ala. Jordan and his friend, Sgt. Justin W. Garvey, were killed July 20, 2003, near Talafar in northern Iraq when a rocket-propelled grenade hit their Humvee. Both men were in the 1st Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 187th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, based at Ft. Campbell, Ky.
“It helps you realize that he is not going to be forgotten,” Sandra Jordan, the Alabama soldier’s mother, said of the memorial. “This way, when I’m dead and gone, somebody will read it and realize that Jason fought in the war, and that he died.”
Across the country, numerous tributes to Americans who have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan have sprung up. They have been as varied as websites and the repainting of a water tank in Exeter, Calif., to honor a National Guardsman who died in an Iraqi mortar attack. Some have been seasonal, such as an 8-foot-high balsam fir in Amnicon, Wis., that was decorated at Christmas with the names of 31 Wisconsin soldiers killed in Iraq.
However, Garvey’s goal of placing bronze versions of “field crosses” -- the rifle-and-helmet symbols soldiers use to mark comrades’ battlefield graves -- in each hometown with a wartime death appears to be the most ambitious plan.
“People are taking it upon themselves to honor the dead,” said Howard M. Weiss, a psychology professor and co-director of the Military Family Research Institute, a government-funded center at Purdue University.
Such public homage, he said, is a stark contrast to the Vietnam era, when some opponents of the American presence in Southeast Asia refused to recognize the sacrifices of the troops who were fighting and dying there.
Lengthy delays in officially commemorating America’s fallen in some previous wars have also made some families adamant that they are not going to wait for the government this time. John “Skip” Bushart of Waterford, Mich., a Detroit suburb, said he was determined to erect one of Garvey’s memorials for his son Damian, 22. The private first class from A Troop, 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Armored Division, of Armstrong Barracks, Buedingen, Germany, was killed in November 2003 when a tank collided with his vehicle in Baghdad.
“As a veteran of Vietnam, we waited 25 years for a memorial of some kind,” said his father, a former master chief sergeant in the Air Force Reserve. “World War II had to wait almost 50 years for the memorial,” he said, referring to the monument dedicated last year on the Mall in Washington.
For many in Elba, a town of 4,000 in southeastern Alabama, the memorial to Jordan has been a way for people to demonstrate their appreciation for what he did, and to provide moral support to his parents.
“This is a relatively small town,” said Russ English, administrative officer at National Security Group, an insurance company in Elba. “Obviously everyone here feels the loss, and we just want to do something so that we don’t lose sight or forget.”
The memorial to Jordan is in a Veterans Memorial Park that the insurance company opened on its corporate grounds in 1988. Sandra Jordan said three businesses had contributed materials or helped build the site.
Garvey contributed the bronze sculpture of the M-16 and helmet. His son, he said, would have wanted his friend honored before himself.
In Michigan, Bushart said he had collected more than $5,000 to pay for his son’s memorial, from contributions and through a carwash, a bowlathon and a monthly spaghetti dinner benefit held by a restaurant. Local companies will contribute a bronze plaque, a flagpole and the labor. A congressman will send an American flag that has flown over the Capitol.
“The biggest battle I face is going to be with local government so far as securing an 8-square-feet piece of property,” Bushart said. His township’s veterans committee has been reluctant to approve the use of municipal land to honor one person.
The owner of the restaurant where the spaghetti benefits are held has proposed putting the monument in front of his business. Whatever location is chosen, Bushart said, he hoped the monument could be ready by May 27, which would have been his son’s 24th birthday.
“It does help with the grieving process,” the father said. “And it helps knowing that with these memorials, these military service members will be remembered. I don’t want to say, ‘will not have died in vain,’ because I don’t want to get into the politics of the war. But people will see these memorials and remember these kids.”