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Moveable memorial is catharsis for veteran

Hand-crafted tombstones honor Iraq casualties

Gary Davis, shown in April, helped organize a one-day display of the Arlington Northwest Memorial to fallen soldiers in Iraq at Green Lake Park in Seattle.  Seattle Times (Courtney Blethen Seattle Times / The Spokesman-Review)
Gary Davis, shown in April, helped organize a one-day display of the Arlington Northwest Memorial to fallen soldiers in Iraq at Green Lake Park in Seattle. Seattle Times (Courtney Blethen Seattle Times / The Spokesman-Review)
Nancy Bartley I Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Early in the morning, the count begins. Gary Davis takes the stiff plastic, sets it in a frame, and cuts. A tombstone shape emerges. And then another.

Four thousand two hundred sixty-four. Four thousand two hundred sixty-five. Four thousand two hundred sixty-six.

Today at dawn, Davis and about 40 others will place those symbolic tombstones in perfect rows on the lawn near the Peace Arch in Blaine. For the past six years, the one-day Arlington Northwest Memorial has been a symbol of the costs of the war in Iraq, each tombstone representing a fallen U.S. soldier.

Because soldiers continue to die, Davis keeps making tombstones. In his open-air workshop at the end of a long winding road east of Duvall, curtains of rain fall as he works, cutting and stacking.

Then he returns to the crooked old house perched a few feet away on a bluff. He takes bread from the oven and puts a kettle on for tea. In the living room, there’s an old woodstove, worn, overstuffed sofas and a mattress pushed near a large window so he can sleep near the trees.

Not far from a photo of his father in a Navy uniform are posters from Veterans for Peace, the group that, with the Evergreen Peace and Justice Community, sponsors the memorial.

A moving display

Since 2003, the members have taken the memorial to a variety of public spaces for one-day displays that move many to tears. Veterans, widows, daughters and sons, friends and many others walk among the rows of white markers.

Recently, Davis was one of those who set up at Green Lake and then sat beneath a tree in silence as walkers suddenly veered from the lakeside path and slowed as they took in the sight of five acres of crosses.

Joan Krakowiak, a licensed clinical social worker who once worked with veterans, saw the exhibit and burst into tears. “I’ve known so many people who suffer from this,” she said. “I’ve sat in so many rooms, listened to so much (about) what they’ve seen.”

Military as rite

Davis, a 62-year-old electrician with a gray ponytail and ruddy face, was once a short-haired Mormon boy, growing up in Salt Lake City, the offspring of a family where service in the military was a rite of passage.

He graduated from high school in 1965, went to Boise, bought a motorcycle, loved water skiing and hunting, and was leading a good life before he got his draft notice. He became an Army tank driver in Vietnam, a land “pockmarked with craters from bombing raids.”

It was after these raids that Davis’ unit was called to “go into the jungle … and scrape up where the bodies had been buried.”

The bombs were indiscriminate. Men, women, children, enemies, friends all died. Frequently his unit’s job was to count the dead. Then came the day when buddies in his unit were sent to help South Vietnamese soldiers under fire nearby. As the tank trundled toward a bridge, a Viet Cong soldier with a rocket-launcher fired at the tank. All inside were killed.

Blond Sammy Jones, a newly married husband from Tulsa; Lt. Wright … Gomez … Harvey. The names make Davis’ eyes well with tears.

He returned to Boise, married, had a son and eventually divorced. He tucked the war inside his heart for 30 years. Then his father died in 2002.

“My heart split wide open,” he says. He found his father’s uniforms from World War II and his own from Vietnam. He began to grieve as he slept in his father’s bed, ate his father’s leftovers and wore his father’s clothes. He read the letters he sent home from Vietnam, how he tried to protect his parents from worry by giving them veiled information. And he began to reconsider military service as an unquestioned rite of passage.

In October 2002 he called Capt. Kelly o’McCluskey, a World War II veteran who was a national representative of Veterans for Peace and charged with starting a chapter in Washington.

Remedy for pain

For those such as o’McCluskey, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, working for peace is a good remedy for anyone searching for self-forgiveness for harm to others during the war.

O’McCluskey, Davis and three others formed the first Veterans for Peace in the state. The organization took off when the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003. Davis joined 65,000 protest marchers in Seattle, and a short time after, Arlington Northwest was created and exhibited in Redmond.

Ever since, Davis has been a quiet presence at demonstrations, even the funerals of soldiers he’s never met.

The Washington exhibit has gone from Blaine to Olympia. It takes 40 people four hours to set it up. A few weeks ago there was a work party at Davis’ home to clean and store the markers and as the death toll in Iraq continues – 4,616 as of May 20 – he’ll continue to make tombstones.

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