Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Don’t say happy’: Boots on the Ground display a somber reminder on Memorial Day

Hundreds of combat boots in varying shades of desert suede snaked alongside a path in front of the Spokane Arena on Sunday.

A small American flag protruded from the top of each shoe with a photograph of a U.S. service member was clipped to the front: Staff Sgt. Danielle Nienajadlo, of Spokane; Spc. Jerome Potter, of Tacoma; Capt. Aaron Blanchard, of Selah; and more than 200 others.

“When you put a name and a face to the day, it tends to make a big difference,” said Keirsten Lyons, director of the Fallen Heroes Project, who lost her son, Marine Sgt. Jacob Hess, in Afghanistan in 2014.

The display, Boots on the Ground, is the first of its kind from the Washington State Fallen Heroes Project over this Memorial Day weekend.

“It’s humbling this morning, just thinking about all of the places these boots have been,” Lyons said. “They all have a story and families that love and miss them. What they all have in common is that they raised their hand to serve.”

People should enjoy the holiday with their friends and family, but Lyons said she and her colleagues want people to remember that the day is more than just an extension of the weekend.

The idea for the display came a few years ago when the organization began to collect boots from fallen service members in hopes of creating a display in their honor, Lyons said. Many of the boots donated are from Fairchild Air Force Base, but others come from the family members of service members who died overseas or from other service-related incidents, she said.

The organization is still collecting boots to complete its display of fallen service members from Washington and North Idaho who have died since 9/11 in 2001. Organizers hope to make the display an annual tradition in Spokane.

“I hope people look at all the faces and names and realize that they gave their lives for something greater than themselves,” said Nicole Frazer, the wife of a veteran who has been helping with the Fallen Heroes Project for nearly a decade. “Have your barbecue and beer, but do take time to know what the day means.”

For a small but close-knit group of families in the Spokane area, Memorial Day weekend is anything but celebratory. The group of families has been a lifeline for Brandy Johnson after the death of her brother, Air Force Master Sgt. Jerred Shorthill in 2012.

“It’s a network of people who have gone through similar tragedy,” said Johnson. “I was really lost, and everything came together through this group.”

Spectators walked along the path of names on Sunday, crouching closer to take a look at their photos. Storm clouds threatened, but only a light drizzle struck in the afternoon.

If there’s one thing that Lyons and her colleagues hope to achieve is that “people stop putting ‘happy’ in front of our heartache,” she said.

“Please don’t say ‘happy,’ ” she said. “For all of these families represented here, Memorial Day is every day for us.”

Boots on the Ground will be on display at the Spokane Arena through Monday evening.