ANCHORAGE - Peace groups brought a solemn display to Anchorage: an exhibit of 109 pairs of black boots representing the 109 American servicemen and women with connections to Alaska who have died in Iraq.
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The boots, part of "Eyes Wide Open: An Exhibition on the Human Cost of War," were assembled by the local chapter of the American Friends Service Committee and other peace groups at Town Square Park.
The boots, set up on damp grass, each more a tag with a name, rank, hometown and home base. Each pair represented a serviceman or woman who was from Alaska or stationed here.
The 109 pairs of boots faced west, toward two small knolls in front of the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. On those knolls were some 300 pairs of other footwear - men's and women's shoes, sandals, flip-flops, sneakers, baby and toddler shoes, each one also bearing a name tag and representing an Iraqi civilian who died in the war that began in March 2003.
Soldiers and civilians were memorialized by an exhibit that began in Chicago in January 2004 with 504 pairs of military boots. The exhibit been seen across the country and has continued to grow as the death toll mounted.
The last national exhibit of "Eyes Wide Open," on Memorial Day, saw some 3,700 pairs of military boots spread out in Chicago.
The exhibit has been split state by state and shown in 45 states in all, said Taylor Brelsford of Anchorage, who's on the AFSC national board and was one of the principal organizers of the local exhibit.
Several hundred people drifted through the park Saturday. They gazed quietly at the name tags. They listened to poetry and music and the names of the dead read aloud, an American name, then an Iraqi's.
"It's very sad," said Eric Esquivel, 23, of San Antonio, Texas. "My uncle said you don't think about this stuff when you're out with your friends. This is life. It's the real thing."
Esquivel's uncle is 1st Sgt. Robert Trevino, 38, of Anchorage, a transportation corpsman stationed at Fort Richardson who said he'll likely be deployed to Iraq next summer.
The shoes have tremendous symbolic value, said Dee Hunt, 54, a researcher from Anchorage and a member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, another sponsor.
"You travel through life in your shoes. They evoke personhood and the individual," Hunt said. "They're evocative. They show the loss. These people were alive once."
Among those visiting the exhibit was Dianne Cleveland of Anchorage who works as a security guard. Pfc. Adare Cleveland, her son, was 20 when he was killed Feb. 19 in Baghdad. He was one of 16 dead soldiers with an Alaska hometown.
A pair of boots with her son's name and the wrong age, 19, occupied the northeast corner of the array. Dianne Cleveland didn't know about the exhibit until Brelsford phoned her.
In every state, exhibit organizers try to reach family members to tell them their soldier's name will be attached to a pair of boots and to invite them to the display. The organizers also inform military chaplains.
Exhibit organizers will remove a soldier's name from a pair of boots if the family wishes it, he said. That happened when the exhibit was in Fairbanks last month. A father said that while the exhibit is a memorial, it carries an underlying protest against the war, Brelsford said.
The exhibit is intentionally nonpolitical, he said.
"There will be another time for this contest over the national discussion," Brelsford said. "Our intention is that we not be indifferent to the human cost of the war."
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