Crosses becoming too many for group to bear

Times Staff Writer

It looks like an engineer’s dream: Forty-nine rows and 52 columns of white, wooden crosses a foot-and-a-half high, each exactly 36 inches from its neighbor, each row exactly 60 inches from the next, a precise reckoning of combat death gleaming on the beach beside Stearns Wharf.

Each cross in the display mounted every Sunday represents an American fatality in Iraq.

At its start three years ago, the project had 340 of them. Last Sunday, there were 2,831.

In a telling comment on the war’s unexpected duration, organizers of the memorial called Arlington West now are talking about picking a number -- perhaps 3,000 -- and building no more crosses after it’s reached.

“It’s strictly a matter of logistics -- there’s just a limit to how much room we can take up and how many crosses we can handle,” said Dan Seidenberg, president of the local chapter of a group called Veterans for Peace. “I mean: How long will this war drag on?”


About a dozen volunteers have shown up week after week since the start. They’re joined by up to 30 others who appear now and again. Some started coming only in recent months, prompted by rumors that the project would cease for lack of help.

On a recent Sunday, Rod Edwards, an engineer for the Goleta Water District, walked briskly down the rows, hunching over to secure laminated, handwritten nameplates, using two rubber bands per cross.

“You almost feel you know them after a while,” said Edwards, who volunteers for the task each week. “It just tears your heart out.”

Here he draped a string of rosary beads that a soldier’s parents had left for their son’s marker; there he propped up a plastic-encased obituary for Sgt. Mark A. Maida, who “deployed to Iraq and adopted a puppy there named Maxine.” He was 22.

On this day, Edwards made quick work of installing more than 1,200 nametags.

Marine Cpl. Jorge A. Gonzalez, 20, of Los Angeles: “Graduate of El Monte High School and father of a newborn.”

Marine Lance Cpl. Jesus Suarez del Solar, 20, of Escondido: “RIP: Our Hero and Aztec warrior.”


When there were fewer crosses, each name was displayed. Now, the names of all fatalities are dutifully recorded on nameplates, but volunteers put up only those whose friends or families have visited.

Not long ago, Edwards said, he comforted a sailor who had dropped by to seek out the name of his buddy.

“He seemed fine at first,” Edwards said. “But when he saw the name, he just lost it. He threw himself on the sand and cried.”

When the crosses are taken down about eight hours later, the nameplates are filed away just so, allowing Edwards and other volunteers to honor requests that troops who died together be grouped side by side. One such grouping has 17 crosses. One family asked for a Star of David instead of a cross, and that request also was honored.

Arlington West has inspired about a dozen similar installations around the United States, including one on the beach at Santa Monica. Except for a few rainouts, the Santa Barbara display has been erected every Sunday since Nov. 2, 2003.

“We sent up an SOS this summer, and that brought a spate of new volunteers,” said Bob Potter, a retired drama professor and an officer of Veterans for Peace. “But people get exhausted.”


The ideal, Potter said, would be to continue to place a marker for each battlefield death -- but the sheer size of the task might make that impossible.

A committee is grappling with the question of limiting the crosses, which now span nearly an acre of prime beachfront. Although the city has given its blessing to the project, some volunteers grimly anticipate that it might one day crowd sunbathers and spill over into areas reserved for beach volleyball.

That was never the plan. The group never envisioned a permanent or even a full-time memorial because that would have taken more money, more manpower and sturdier crosses.

Last Sunday, volunteers started arriving about 7:30 a.m. Most were of a certain age, but members of the Santa Barbara High School Peace Club, just a bit younger than the troops they were memorializing, also pitched in. Joggers ran nearby, and a few kayakers paddled just offshore as people started hauling crosses lashed together in bundles of 16 from a donated truck.

Using methods developed by Ron Dexter, a retired TV commercial producer known in the group as a logistical whiz, the volunteers conducted the operation with military precision. Hundred-foot measuring tapes were stretched taut across the sand. People hurried down the rows, dropping each cross at a spot marked in red on the tapes.

Behind them came others to plant the crosses firmly, still others to straighten them and yet others to stick miniature U.S. flags beside each marker.


A man in a straw hat raked the sand between the crosses with a gizmo consisting of three yoked-together mop handles and dozens of dowels. He likened it to grooming a Zen garden.

As the day wore on, mourners came by, kneeling amid the crosses. Volunteers offered kind words and flowers, sometimes sitting beside them on the sand.

A Vietnam-era veteran, Dinah Mason comes weekly to help. With a daughter who just returned from Iraq, she said she has a particular feeling for mothers who weren’t so fortunate.

“One lady from Simi Valley started talking about the favorite thing she used to bake for her son, and then she started crying,” Mason said. “We were crying with her.”

On the wharf, tourists leaned on a railing and peered down at the scene. A recorded bugle played taps over and over.

Joel and Yazmin Leal, who had come from Fullerton to Santa Barbara for their anniversary, found the name of their friend Douglas J. Marenco Reyes, a Marine who was among the first 200 troops to die in Iraq. For a while, they gazed in silence around the beach.


“This is amazing,” said Yazmin, who last saw her friend at her husband’s birthday party two months before Reyes’ death. “There’s a person to each one of these crosses.”

At day’s end, volunteers fanned out among the crosses, pulling them up as meticulously as they had put them down that morning. At precise intervals, they tied them together using identical lengths of rope, looped in identical spots -- another of Dexter’s innovations for making the work go more quickly.

The display has angered some.

A debate over its propriety recently flared in the letters columns of the Santa Barbara News-Press, with some writers saying it exploits fallen heroes for political gain. Last year, a Lompoc mother, Debbie Argel Bastian, demanded that the name of her son, Air Force Capt. Derek Argel, be removed because he wouldn’t want to be associated with an antiwar protest.

The organizers complied.

Although articles critical of the war are displayed at Arlington West each week, volunteers said the tone used to be far more strident.

“One old World War II veteran would come down with ‘Impeach Bush’ signs, and we took to asking him not to have those around,” said Potter of Veterans for Peace. “We moved to a position where we were trying to open the memorial to as wide a public as possible rather than trying to provoke people.”

Even the crosses themselves have become softer.

Stephen Sherrill, a Santa Barbara carpenter, started Arlington West with half a dozen friends as a protest.


He still checks a website each week for fatalities, still buys the lumber with donated funds, still glues and screws the appropriate number of crosses.

“I plane the wood and curve the edges now,” he said. “People were getting too many cuts and splinters.

“And whatever I can do to make the crosses a little lighter helps,” Sherrill said. “We’re looking at a ton-and-a-half of wood out there.”

Sherrill will be making more crosses for this weekend’s display. As a tribute to Veterans Day, Arlington West will be up Saturday as well as Sunday. Candles will be lighted and volunteers will stand vigil through the night.

From a patch of shade under a tarp, Sherrill recalled similar candlelight observances over the last three years.

“But who’d have thought we’d still be here?” he asked.