The first Sunday of November 2003, a group of local activists erected 340 wooden crosses on the beach immediately west of Stearns Wharf, marking the death of U.S. servicemen and servicewomen in Iraq.
Outraged that the Bush administration had barred U.S. media from photographing returning coffins containing the war dead from Iraq, founder Stephen Sherrill, along with a small group of local activists, erected the first installation of what has become widely known as the Arlington West memorial. “I didn’t feel that the American people were mindful of the terrible price we were paying – and were about to pay – for the invasion and occupation of Iraq,” says Sherrill. “The statistics in the newspapers were just tiny little numbers, too easy to breeze over.” Since the first installation of about 340 crosses in November of 2003, the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq has grown beyond 4,500. Formerly held every Sunday morning, and now erected on a twice-a-month basis (first and third Sunday of each month), members of Veterans for Peace and volunteers from the community place crosses in the sand by Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara, CA, in remembrance of those whose lives have been sacrificed in Iraq. Hundreds of observers from across the nation and around the world visit Arlington West every week. To date, there have been approximately twenty duplications of the original Arlington West all across America, including their weekly “sister memorial” in Santa Monica, CA.
In the intervening years since the memorial started, Veterans for Peace members and volunteers have effectively transformed what began as an angry anti-war protest into a genuine memorial — somber, chilling, and irresistibly moving. The memorial has been deliberately de-politicized in an effort to make Arlington West a non-threatening experience for everyone, regardless of their political affiliation. Gone are the placards denouncing George W. Bush that were there in the beginning. In their place are flowers, flags, and the names of the dead attached to the crosses and posted on makeshift bulletin boards. The crosses are planted in straight, tight rows, covering over an acre of beach that every Sunday make a stunning visual statement. In the background, the sound of “Taps” can be heard playing nonstop from a nearby recorder. At sunset, the music ends and the crosses are taken down, packed up, and stored away until the coming week.
Adjacent to one of the most heavily traveled intersections in Santa Barbara, Stearns Wharf has always been a favorite place for tourists to stroll. But now, it has also become a place where friends and relatives of the deceased can pay their last respects. “Until you’ve held a weeping mother in your arms who has lost her child – or worse, her only child – in Iraq, it’s difficult to grasp the enormity of the pain and the sorrow and the grief that has resulted from this war that WE started,” says Sherrill. Everyone involved with Arlington West has a similar story to tell. Nearly a thousand of the crosses have been visited by friends, comrades, or loved ones. “We never realized it would get so gigantic,” says Pat Chamberlin-Calamar. “Every time I place flowers by a cross, I say a little prayer.”