Controversial war memorial runs out of room

August 10, 2011 9:20:27 PM PDT
For eight years, volunteers have been adding white crosses to a hillside display for each service member killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, that practice has ended.

In the past, when an American was killed in either Iraq or Afghanistan, a cross was added to the Lafayette memorial. Last weekend, 30 Navy SEALs and other American soldiers died when their chopper was shot down in Afghanistan, but now there's no more room on the hill.

"To me it symbolizes the terrible price this country has paid for the wars," said Lafayette resident Peggy Johnstone.

Johnstone never thought the grassy hillside near her Lafayette home would ever get so crowded with thousands of white crosses.

"I thought it was really important to document this, because to me it had a lot of meaning. So I took pictures," said Johnstone.

Johnstone began taking photos in 2003. That's when a local group began putting up the crosses to mark the death of each American servicemember in Iraq and then Afghanistan. Johnstone took a particular interest because her son is in the Army and has served in Iraq. At first, there were just a few crosses. Now, there's no room for any more.

"If we had the full 6,000, it would just be a sea of white," said Craig Cataline, a volunteer.

Cataline helps maintain the crosses. He too has a son who served in Iraq, where Navy corpsman Neil Cataline was seriously injured.

"We decided that we're starting to get to the point that we need to make it more of a memorial and people who have lost people can still plant crosses, but we're not going to try to keep up with the numbers anymore," said Cataline.

Over the years, the crosses have been vandalized and they've sparked controversy. Some residents, including veterans and their families find the display disrespectful. Especially the big number sign at the top that shows the current death tally.

"I find it a little bit disturbing that the people who are erecting this monument and are making all this effort are doing so as a direct reflection of their feelings against the war. It's ironic to watch them exercise their Constitutional rights that are secured by the men and women that those crosses represent," said Matthew Boggs from the Diablo Valley Flag Brigade.

Cataline says while the number of crosses won't grow, he will keep updating the big sign.

"Either finish it or get out is really becoming our new message," said Cataline.

When asked if she ever imagined it would grow as big as it is now, Johnstone said, "Never, never in a million years and that's the real tragedy."

Besides changing the numbers, the people who maintain this memorial say they will focus their efforts going forward on cleaning up the display and arranging the existing crosses into rows, that they say will make it look more like a cemetery.


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