In an event marking Veterans Day 2012, dozens of students, faculty, staff and visitors at Eastern Mennonite University circulated sometime between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. among rows of 200 pairs of boots that had belonged to members of the U.S. armed services who died in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“Response was overwhelmingly positive,” said organizer Evan Knappenberger, 27, a junior at EMU and a veteran of the war in Iraq. “The experience was emotional – many people cried – over the tragedy of the loss of these solders’ lives. The comment I heard most often was ‘thank you.””
The boots, all tagged with the deceased soldier’s name and home town in Virginia, came in all sizes and shades of black and gray – some seemed new, as if they had been dress boots, and others were scuffed and water-marked to the point of turning whitish.
Some had photos of children and spouses attached, or poems and prayers preserved in clear plastic sleeves underneath the boot soles.
All ethnicities seemed to be present. There was Humayun Khan from Bristol, whose boot bore a “wage peace button” distributed by the American Friends Service Committee. And Avaro R. Regaldo Sessarego from Virginia Beach. Sharon T. Swartworth’s small boots had a button that read, “Recognizing Women Veterans – It’s about time!” She was from Alexandria.
Dwayne L Moore’s boots came with more documentation than most. We learned that this native of Williamsburg – “a great man of faith who loved the Lord and his family” – died on April 19, 2007, at age 31 in Iraq, leaving behind his wife and daughter (pictured), parents, and six siblings. He had been in the Army for 13 years.
Knappenberger received help in setting up and tearing down the display – which required a 16-foot truck to transport the boots in 32 plastic boxes from their permanent storage location in Richmond – from about 20 members of the EMU community. One of those helping was Daniela Bergen, a senior from Paraguay, who said she wanted to pitch in to show her respect to those who sacrificially served the United States, “the country giving me an education.”
In an interview the week before Veterans Day, Knappenberger said it is “typically a holiday that pays homage to veterans with parades, concerts and celebration.” Knappenberger left the army in 2007 after nearly four years of service as an enlisted man, including a year in the Iraqi war. “Sometimes it can seem like a celebration of war and militarism, more of a political event than a remembrance. Because of this, portions of the community – especially young people and pacifists – can be left feeling alienated on this special holiday.”
Knappenberger, president of the Charlottesville chapter of Veterans for Peace, said he is working with other veterans, as well as non-veterans in the EMU community, to bridge what he calls a “cultural divide“ on matters of military service and sacrifices.
Knappenberger said veterans can feel “oppressed,” even by “traditionally pacifist people like Mennonites who have come to be afraid of us. “
“Veterans are a sacred political cow,” he added. “They are given lip-service, swept under the rug and ignored. But many veterans are also peace advocates, pacifists, scholars, and activists.
“Regardless of politics, soldiers want to serve their country, which is an honorable thing – not to kill random people in some country they’ve never heard of. We must reach out to veterans and help them find peace.”
The Nov. 12 remembrance at EMU was called “Eyes Wide Open.”
“These boots show the human cost of war and bring to light the cultural and social oppression of veterans as a whole,” said Knappenberger, who entered EMU as a junior majoring in philosophy and theology in the fall of 2012. “Eyes Wide Open is a powerful display of what goes on just under the surface of U.S. foreign and economic policy, and a poignant reminder of the burdens of young soldiers’ oppression in unpopular and unsuccessful wars.”