West Coast's Sea of Crosses Honors Fallen Soldiers

Nearly 3,000 white crosses representing fallen soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan stretch along the beaches of Santa Barbara, Calif. A growing number of people come to pay homage at a place that's come to be called "Arlington West."

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

And I'm Noah Adams.

Three years ago, in the resort town of Santa Barbara, California, volunteers began work on a memorial they now call Arlington West. They planted white crosses along the beach, each one representing an American soldier killed in Iraq. Every Sunday since then, the number of crosses has grown, and so has the number of people paying a visit.

Gloria Hillard has a report.

GLORIA HILLARD: For Rod Elwood(ph), it was another Sunday at the beach - it was a beautiful day and he was sitting on the sand in front of a small white cross. He attaches a handwritten grave marker with a rubber band. As a long time volunteer at this makeshift memorial, he's memorized many of the names here.

Mr. ROD ELWOOD: Until a couple of months ago, we had a name on every single cross. But it's grown so big and so fast, what we do now is we put out the names of soldiers that have been visited by somebody.

HILLARD: Those crosses, the visited ones, have photos, or a small stuffed animal. Sometimes, a hastily written goodbye.

Mr. ELWOOD: To Michael, Michael Angelo Mora(ph), a neighbor that I can't forget, rest in peace, always, Erica Millhorn(ph), thank you.

HILLARD: If we had a camera, this is where it would zoom back, unveiling hundred of crosses in the sand, all in military precision - 48 rows across, 56 back, each one representing a fallen soldier in the Iraq war.

Three years ago, Steven Sheryl(ph), a contractor by trade, started making the crosses.

Mr. STEVEN SHERYL: We started off with about 340 crosses. And today, we just put in 2,876 crosses. And we have a ton and a half of wood just under an acre.

HILLARD: Each week, of course, the number changes.

Mr. SHERYL: During the week, I check the statistics for the week to determine how much lumber I have to buy.

HILLARD: Other volunteers hand out picture postcards of the memorial to passers-by. Tom Shaft(ph), a Korean War veteran in a baseball cap is doing that today. He says the tourists have usually come to this spot for its famed pier, its surfers, or a brilliant California sunset. They didn't expect a memorial.

Mr. TOM SHAFT (Korean War Veteran): And then they all say the same thing, men and women. They say, before I saw this, it was just a number to me. Which is like, a revolutionary idea that something happened here that allowed them to find the feelings behind what was just a number before.

HILLARD: Some remain steadfast on a sidewalk or pier. Others, like tourist Temple Linder(ph) take a closer look on the sand.

Ms. TEMPLE LINDER: I almost want to say it's a rude awakening, but I felt like, you know, I've been aware of the war for quite some time, obviously. And just to read the stories and see the photos, it just really brings it home.

HILLARD: Susan Wilzerd(ph) and Tom Zimmer(ph) were waiting for their friend to come home when they received news that he had been killed in a roadside bombing on November 4. Susan was making a placard that would go on his cross. At Tom's urgings she adds that Mitchell James(ph), known to his friends as Doug(ph), had learned to knit before he was redeployed.

Ms. SUSAN WILZERD: He started teaching the other guys how to knit, and realized there's a huge interest, so he's got, you know, 30 knitters over there right now, knitting up ski hats, looking forward to coming home to Alaska, and they're due home in the coming weeks. And unfortunately, Doug was killed on the streets in Baghdad.

Mr. TOM ZIMMER: We just feel very lucky to have -

(Soundbite of sobbing)

- just lucky.

HILLARD: Lucky, to have known him.

For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

(Soundbite of music)

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