The Boots on the Ground for Heroes Memorial is ready for its fourth year of honoring fallen soldiers, but this year there is an added wrinkle.
Dee DeQuattro, Operation Stand Down RI’s development director and the event’s founder, told the Sun Rise on May 13 that the memorial will move to Fort Adams State Park in Newport from Roger Williams Park for its fourth installment. The move, DeQuattro said, was made around the start of the new year, and it’s one that will make the event even more symbolic.
“It’s one of the oldest military installations in the country,” DeQuattro said about Fort Adams. “So to put these boots on one of the oldest parade fields in the country, where many soldiers have come before, it’s a pretty big deal … There’s such a military community, with a Navy base right there and a lot of retirees living in the community.”
Boots on the Ground is a “living, growing memorial” of nearly 7,000 boots – each laid out with a flag and name placard – to honor lives lost in the Global War on Terror since Sept. 11, 2001. Thirty-seven boots were added for this year’s event, which will open Friday, May 24, at 8 a.m. and run through Memorial Day.
DeQuattro said approximately 10,000 people have attended the event each year, taking a break from the barbecues and family time to remember those who have sacrificed their lives for freedom.
“It’s kind of a stark reminder, when Memorial Day comes, to people that this is actually the cost of freedom,” she said. “Our country is still at war. We’ve been at war for the past 18 years. We just want to remind people, ‘Hey, it’s Memorial Day, and the reason we actually have this holiday is because these people made the ultimate sacrifice.’”
Friday will also feature the third annual Gold Star Gala, which raises money for the boots and allows OSDRI to recognize Gold Star families. For the first time ever, at Fort Adams, the gala will be held alongside the boots. DeQuattro said Gold Star families will lay out boots for their children prior to the gala as well.
On Sunday night, May 26, there will be a patriotic concert with the 88th Rhode Island Army National Guard Band.
“The thing that’s cool about this, as opposed to other Memorial Day events, is that some events … you come to the ceremony and that’s it,” DeQuattro said. “This, it’s up all weekend. You could really fit it in your schedule, come any time and view it at your leisure. And you don’t have to be talked at.”
DeQuattro said that first-time attendees are usually in awe of the spectacle. She said service members have come down to have a beer with a specific boot or “pour one out.” Wives have cried knowing their husbands are deployed, too.
She recalled one story, though, that has stayed with her ever since being asked to take a picture of a man and a small child with a specific boot.
“I remember one of the most upsetting times was when a man came and they were looking for a very specific boot,” DeQuattro said. “When we asked him what their relation to the boot was, he said it was his son and the little boy’s father.”
People from all walks of life come to the memorial. DeQuattro explained that service members fight with units from all over, meaning that if one is killed in action they could be buried anywhere in the country. Since it can be difficult to visit those graves, the memorial is arranged alphabetically by state.
“A lot of them come help set up and visit friends that they knew [and] that they served with that have been killed in action,” DeQuattro said. “So this sets up hallowed ground for the weekend and gives an opportunity for some people to come visit their friends, spend some time with them … It’s really a tremendous event. It’s a huge success every year and I think it just means a lot to so many people.”
Holding the event in Newport will also allow OSDRI to cater to a more “transient” population, with tourists roaming the city throughout Memorial Day weekend.
DeQuattro said the local Chamber of Commerce is offering deals to restaurants for those that stop by the event. OSDRI is also partnering with BUKI, a community app that will provide users with information about the memorial and profiles of 29 fallen Rhode Island service members.
“A lot of people come to visit Newport for Memorial Day weekend, and they might just stop by and check out the boots,” DeQuattro said. “So it’s going to reach such a wider audience. We’re hoping that Rhode Islanders will make the trek across the bay and come check out the boots down at Fort Adams. I think it’s going to be beautiful. I think it’s awesome.”
DeQuattro said the long-term goal is to take Boots on the Ground on the road as sort of a traveling tribute, allowing OSDRI to transport it to other states. She’s still figuring out the details of making that a possibility, but for now OSDRI is setting up thousands of boots for this year’s memorial. It’s a labor of love to honor those who put their lives on the line.
“We haven’t logistically figured out how to travel it yet, so this is the first time we’re not going somewhere that we’re so used to doing it,” DeQuattro said. “We’re used to setting it up at the park, this year we’re going to see how we do on the road. So I’m a little excited to see about that, and get to a bigger audience.”