`The least that we can do'

Church hangs ribbons in memory of fallen troops

December 30, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

The thousands of ribbons hanging along the drive up to the church in Odenton flutter in a cold wind, their brilliant colors belying their somber meaning.

Each of the yellow strips represents two U.S. lives lost in the war on terrorism. Green ribbons each represent thousands of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan who have been killed. And purple ribbons represent prayers for peace.

Inspired by a program called Ribbons for Peace at the First and Franklin Street Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, the congregation of Ark and Dove Presbyterian Church started Ribbons of Remembrance as a way to honor the fallen from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"They wanted to find a way to let their dissatisfaction with the war be known without dishonoring soldiers," said the Rev. Tim Stern, pastor of Ark and Dove.

Vaughn Brown, who retired from the Navy in 1995, said he had mixed emotions about the project. While he supported it -- and became one of the volunteers -- he worried that because the church members have such a wide range of opinions, they would not unite in the effort. Brown, 56, of Millersville, was relieved that his fears were unfounded.

"We came together, not only in our faith and Christian beliefs but also in our political values and thoughts," he said.

To prepare for the inauguration of the program, a team of church volunteers purchased plastic sleeves with strings on one end, and reams of yellow, green and purple ribbon that they cut into 48-inch strips.

Then they went to the Department of Defense Web site to find the list of all members of the military killed in the war on terror, said Donald Anderson, one of the coordinators. Next they wrote the name, age and rank of two service members on a piece of paper and placed it in a plastic sleeve. They tied a ribbon from each sleeve to the thick, long string hanging down the church lane.

"We met about three times a week, for about an hour at a time," said Anderson, 72, of Odenton. "It's hard to do it, emotionally, for more than an hour at a time."

Some of the church's 240 members who attended a service Oct. 7, World Peace Day, received a list of names to read aloud during the service. The names were all read at the same time, he said.

"It was very loud in the beginning," Stern said. "There were 30 voices, and then 20, and then 10, and five and then a single voice, and then it was quiet."

After the service, the congregation took the sleeves and pieces of ribbon and began tying them to a string hung at the end of the drive leading up to the church. They hung a few each week after the church services, until they got them up to date around Veterans Day, he said.

Each week since then, the names of the fallen troops killed during the week are read during the church service, and then a sleeve and ribbon are taken outside and hung.

"The reading of the names is a real tactile part of the program," said Stern. "We read the name of a 21-year-old, a young person who died as his adult life was beginning. And then on the other side, someone reads the name of a 48-year-old. We know that that person probably left behind a wife and kids."

When we read the names, we heard how the war had touched every age and ethnic group, he said. But it hits closest to home for those who have family members in the military.

"This war is not much of an inconvenience for American citizens," Stern said. "The people who are affected and who are sacrificing are the soldiers and their families. We've given up nothing. The least that we can do is to remember them."

Brown is grabbed by the display of ribbons every time he sees it, he said.

"It is such a stark image that reminds us of the sacrifices made by military members and their families," he said. "And it is also a stark reminder of the devastation that is caused by war."

In July, before making the decision to start the program, Anderson sent a letter to every U.S. senator, he said. At that time, 3,515 service members had been killed in the war, he said.

He was looking for answers as to when it might end.

"I asked them what magic number it would take to get us out of there," he said. "I asked them when victory would be declared? What was it going to take?"

Five wrote back, but none gave him the answers he sought.

Regardless of how long it takes, the church members plan to keep the program going until the war is over, Anderson said.

"We're not a bunch of rabble rousers," he said. "My granddaughter's fiance just returned from 15 months in Iraq. We just want to honor and remember the soldiers in whatever way we can. This project is our way of saying that these folks are not forgotten."

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