Homemade Memorial Is Stirring Passions on Iraq


In Memory of 2,867 U.S. Troops Killed in Iraq.
by Jesse McKinley

Left, Henry Benton painting a wooden cross that is part of a hillside memorial in Lafayette, Calif., to American service members killed in Iraq.

LAFAYETTE, CA The tranquil suburb of Lafayette hardly seems the most likely place in the Bay Area for a battle over the First Amendment and the war in Iraq. Liberal Berkeley is just over the hill, after all, and nearby San Francisco is always spoiling for a fight.

But over the last few weeks, it is Lafayette an affluent bedroom community 20 miles east of downtown San Francisco that has become the scene of a passionate debate over the place of political speech in suburbia.

At issue is a hillside memorial, made up of some 450 small white crosses and a 5-by-16-foot sign that reads: In Memory of 2,867 U.S. Troops Killed in Iraq. The memorial was created by Jeff Heaton, a building contractor and antiwar activist, who said it was meant to get people involved on a local level and talking about Iraq.

Sure enough, people here have become involved, including more than 200 people and a half-dozen television news crews and reporters who crammed into the usually sparsely attended City Council meeting last week to voice their opinions about the memorial. And while many there said they found the crosses deeply moving, others called the memorial unpatriotic, disrespectful or just plain ugly…


That camp included Jean Bonadio, a former Marine sergeant who said she was so offended that she stopped her car and climbed the hill to dismantle the sign, which sits with the crosses on private property of a fellow advocate just north of Highway 24, a major Bay Area thoroughfare, and the Lafayette light-rail station.

My first reaction was, What a disgrace to those who have sacrificed,’ said Ms. Bonadio, 53, a dog trainer. I had no tools with me, so I removed it with my bare hands and feet.

The sign was repaired, but Ms. Bonadio is not the only one trying to take down the sign. Shortly after the memorial was erected, the city government called on Mr. Heaton to remove the accompanying sign, citing a municipal code forbidding anything larger than four square feet to be posted on private property.

That, however, prompted some supporters of the memorial to suggest that the city was engaging in censorship, accusations Mayor Ivor Samson denied. The content of the sign is not an issue, Mr. Samson said. If the sign was that size and said I love my mom,’ it would still be in violation.

Mr. Samson also said that the memorial had drawn attention here precisely because Lafayette, where the median cost of a home is over $1 million, was traditionally apolitical. I think had this been in Berkeley or Santa Cruz, a community with a greater history of political activism, this wouldn’t be news, he said.

No action was taken at Monday’s meeting, after the city’s attorney said he needed more time to study the issue. But Louise Clark, who owns the property the memorial sits on, said that if the sign had to go, the meaning would be lost.

If it’s just crosses, it’s a cemetery, said Ms. Clark, 81. It’s not a cemetery, nobody is buried there. It’s a memorial.

But some Lafayette residents question whether the memorial actually meant to remember the dead troops. There’s no American flag flying, it’s just very stark and shock value, said Lyn Zusman, 53, whose son is a marine just back from Iraq. If you want to make it a memorial, you personalize it. But if it’s a protest, call it that. That’s why we live in America, so we can spout our views off.

This is not the first time Mr. Heaton, a longtime Lafayette resident, has tried to erect a memorial in his hometown. Three years ago, he tried to mount a smaller display of crosses on the same hillside. The night after he planted them, however, someone stole them. The next day, he planted the crosses again, and the next night, they disappeared again.

But this time, Mr. Heaton says he feels that the mood about the war has shifted, both nationwide and in Lafayette.

There’s been a real change in the tide of feeling about the war, said Mr. Heaton, 53, who said the inspiration for the crosses came from a visit to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. It is much more acceptable now to question the reasons for the war.

He added that Lafayette would be a good place to make a statement because it is pretty sleepy and conservative and not that much happens there.

City officials in Lafayette also say their city has been slowly changing, with an influx of former Berkeley and San Francisco residents looking for a place with good public schools for their children. Lafayette, Mr. Samson said, now has people who are very interested in the larger world.

The Lafayette crosses are not the only grass-roots remembrance around, or the only one to stir controversy. Veterans for Peace, a nonprofit antiwar group based in St. Louis, has regularly planted similar arrays of crosses on beaches in Santa Monica and Santa Barbara. Since 2004, the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group based in Philadelphia, has sponsored a traveling exhibit called Eyes Wide Open, which features a pair of empty boots for every American solider killed in Iraq.

Michael T. McPhearson, executive director of Veterans for Peace, which also has fields of crosses planted in four other cities, admitted that the displays sometimes provoked angry reactions. They say we’re not supporting the troops, and they say we shouldn’t be doing these vigils, said Mr. McPhearson, 42, who served in the first gulf war. But we feel that especially because we’re veterans and we’ve served, we have the right.

Mr. Samson said he did not know when the city attorney would rule on whether the sign in Lafayette had to go. In the meantime, however, Mr. Heaton and Ms. Clark say they will continue to add crosses and update the numbers on the sign.

It’s overwhelming just looking at that small number, and that’s nowhere near the number of the ones we lost, said Ms. Clark, speaking of the dead in Iraq. When we get all those crosses up there, everybody will gasp.


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