Iraq and Afghanistan: America's invisible wars
After seven years in Iraq and nine in Afghanistan, residents of York, Pa., talk about how the wars have become like a screen saver: always there but rarely acknowledged.
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The war, she admits, has left her with views she prefers not to harbor. "When my brother was killed, I was working for a contractor who fingerprinted immigrants. I remember fingerprinting an 86-year- old woman from the Middle East and thinking, Was it your kids who did that to my brother? Was it your grandkids?" It is a prejudice, she says, she tries to choke down.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures York Pennsylvania
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To say there is no visible sign of the present conflicts in York is not true, and that is thanks in particular to Jack Sommer, a Pittsburgh transplant who owns the Prospect Hill Cemetery, eight blocks north of Continental Square.
In early August 2005, some disturbing news caught Mr. Sommer's attention: Eight soldiers from Pennsylvania had been killed in Iraq in the span of five days.
"It got me thinking," Sommer says, "we should do something about this."
Sommer's older brother had fought in Vietnam, and Sommer never forgot the poor treatment accorded returning soldiers as a result of an unpopular war. No matter how people stood on the intervention in Iraq or Afghanistan, he didn't want American forces disgraced or ignored. But what could he do?
The answer surrounded him there at Prospect Hill. Soldiers from every American war since the Revolution are buried on the grounds of his cemetery. He decided that Prospect Hill was a fitting place to honor all American soldiers who had given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Beginning in 2005, Sommer arranged to plant an American flag on Prospect Hill for each soldier killed. Eventually, he created three sections, one for all Americans killed in Iraq, another for all Americans killed in Afghanistan, and a third for Pennsylvanians who died in the two conflicts, with a state flag for each.
From April to December, when the display is taken down for the winter, the hillside quivers with more than 5,000 flags. Huge banners for the dead soldiers with York ties fly along George Street by the cemetery. Local businesses sponsor the banners, which bear the photographs of soldiers.
Whenever there are an additional 100 to 150 new deaths, Sommer schedules a memorial ceremony during which all the new names are read aloud. It's been a tangible gauge of the intensity of the two wars, as combat deaths in Afghanistan now vastly outpace those in Iraq. In the spring, he replants all the flags. It used to be that just his laborers did the work, and it would take them half a day to complete the job. Now, the flag plantings attract 30 or 40 volunteers each spring. They finish the work in under an hour.
"I think this is our responsibility as a democracy, to be aware of the price that we are paying," Sommer says. "What shouldn't happen is that it goes unrecognized."
The display resonates with many people, and not only military families. Callers check in after severe weather to make sure the flags remained standing and to volunteer to restore them if they didn't. Sommer's assistant, Steliana Vassileva, whose younger brother served in Iraq, says that one woman stops whenever she passes by to say a prayer. "And she has no one in the military," Ms. Vassileva says. "She just feels a sense of ownership."
No one sees the young woman unless, perhaps, the occasional cemetery worker. It is a quiet, solitary reflection that the US is, in fact, a country at war – even if many Americans have to remind themselves.