This Side Up

Connecting to the fallen

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I never would have seen the face of Army Captain Ralph Harting III of Union Lake, Mich. or met Buddhist monk Kan Thy if it hadn’t been for the wind Friday afternoon.

Harting’s photograph and the date of his death, April 29, 2005, was on a tag attached to a boot – one of 6,920 boots – in a display covering what was surely more than an acre in front of the Temple of Music at Roger Williams Park. This is the third year Operation Stand Down RI has staged the Boots on the Ground for Heroes Memorial to those who have died in three operations against terrorism. The display brings dimension to the enormity of the loss of life and, as Harting’s picture did, a personal connection that can’t be communicated in a stone monument.

This was sacred ground, yet I held the tag. I felt the boot. I lifted the flag. They were actions I hadn’t thought of taking.

At first glance, I read the name was Harting and I instantly thought of Philip Harting, who I met through St. Luke’s Church in East Greenwich more than 25 years ago. Phil is now deceased, but I wondered if there might be a connection until I read Capt. Harting’s tag more carefully. Harting and Capt. Stephen Frank died while inspecting a truck at a checkpoint south of Baghdad when the driver detonated a bomb, killing himself and the two officers during Operation Iraqi Freedom. I looked around. All of the boots had tags. Every boot had a story.

It was the wind that brought us together. An American flag protruded from the black boot. Only Harting’s boot, like scores of others making up the rows was lying on its side. More boots fell as the wind whipped the flags.

This was a new problem I learned from Erik Wallin, director of Operation Stand Down, who like others in the organization joined by volunteers was up righting the fallen boots and planting the flags alongside the boots. It was a slow task. The ground was hard. The flags kept falling.

This was a new problem. Last year’s flags were smaller and withstood the wind. But as I learned from Wallin, Operation Stand Down was forced to throw out all the flags after the plastic box in which they had been stored was soaked by a ceiling leak. The discovery of the moldy flags came as crews readied this year’s display. Wallin quickly learned it’s not easy to buy 7,000 identical flags. Flags vary by manufacturer and while the same size they would be different. Ocean State Job Lot heard of the search and stepped up with the donation of identical flags.

Then there was the unexpected – the wind.

Options were considered. The boots could be weighted with dirt, but then if it rained, which it did, they would be filled with mud. A line could be strung between the boots and anchored at the end of each row. That was dismissed, as it would have restrained people from walking between the rows. Planting the flags became the answer.

I tried planting a few of the flags without success. I couldn’t drive them deep enough into the ground for them to stand on their own. I stood Harting’s boot, restoring the flag to the boot.

Even with the fallen boots, perhaps more so because of them, Boots on the Ground is a compelling memorial. It has the potential of a permanent memorial, although obviously the boots would have to be made of lasting material and they couldn’t be placed on a field of grass.

Kevin Sullivan of Riverside and Keith Collette of Warwick responded to the call for volunteers to restore the fallen boots. It was hot and tiring work. They didn’t complain.

There were a few spectators. Some sat in the grass looking at the scene. Four walked along the perimeter of the display. Two of them were dressed in the orange and red robes worn by Buddhist monks in Cambodia.

As they approached me, one of the monks started standing up the fallen boots.

Thy Kan’s English is limited, yet I learned he is a member of a Khmer Buddhist temple in Fall River. He is in a program that will have him in this country for about two years. I believe he understood the meaning of the display. I showed him Harting’s tag. He nodded and pointed to the date of his death.

He moved on lifting boots. His companions sat on the grass.

I watched for a moment before leaving.

The wind had bridged time and connected us all.

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