'Remember Them'

Message of 4,100 tiny flags is about human loss, not politics

June 28, 2008|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

CHESTERTOWN - Every single white flag - more than 4,000 of them planted meticulously across the lawn of a Civil War-era home - flaps anonymously in gentle Chester River breezes, a silent tribute to each U.S. service member who has died in the war in Iraq.

James F. Barry is a semi-retired developer, former Naval Academy professor and Vietnam veteran who placed the fluttering reminders in his yard alongside busy Route 213, where they're easily spotted by traffic in either direction.

More than a year after the little flags first made their appearance, Barry says he's not really certain what sparked his idea. It began to take shape after Sunday services at Shrewsberry Episcopal Parish. Churchgoers in the small rural congregation were asked to pray for a dozen local service men and women stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan and for church members with relatives serving overseas.

"It just sort of came to me how much of a sacrifice that was for a small area like Kent County," Barry said. "I just wanted people to remember those who have been lost. And their families."

The one thing he was sure about, Barry said, was that he didn't want anything political, nothing that could be construed as supporting the war or being anti-war. And so he ruled out using little American flags, figuring that the Stars and Stripes packs a lot of emotional impact for some people.

The only written message amid the sea of white is a small sign that reads, "Remember Them."

Among the first to notice and offer help installing the flags was Irving W. Spry Jr., a brick mason whose 19-year-old son, Pvt. Bryan Nicholas "Nick" Spry, was killed in Iraq in 2004, just eight months after he graduated from Kent County High School.

He had been in the war zone only 34 days.

"I knew right away that one of those flags was for my son," said Spry. "I just stopped one day, and thanked him. For the most part, I believe people have understood what he's trying to do. It reminds me of the white headstones you see in Normandy."

As the war continues in its sixth year, the flag display is a rare gesture, Spry and others said.

"We need to realize that people are dying over there," said Margo Bailey, Chestertown's mayor. "I think it's long past time for someone to do something like this. Everyone just seemed to embrace it right away."

Barry, a lanky 63-year-old who seems most comfortable in sandals and jeans, spends a day a week counseling veterans with drug and alcohol problems.

He also gathers clothes and other essentials for them, saids the Rev. Thomas Hughes, the Shrewsbury priest, who advised Barry to go ahead with his flag display.

"Jim asked how I thought it might be received," Hughes said. "I knew people would react well because it was Jim. He doesn't just talk the talk. He walks the walk and gives of himself."

For his part, Barry said his own experiences in Vietnam might have contributed to his flag garden.

"It's a familiar story, I guess," Barry said. "My best friend from grammar school and high school was killed. I'll never forget seeing his mother after I got home."

Barry first planted the flags in January 2007, choosing small white banners more commonly used by contractors to mark a construction site. He removed them after the Fourth of July so the grass could be kept cut during the summer, then installed them again in November.

He and his son and a couple of helpers put up a new batch for Memorial Day.

He and his family don't keep a daily count of the war dead, but they occasionally check the Internet and add flags to the grim total. At least 4,113 members of the U.S. military have died in the Iraq war since it began in March 2003, according to the Associated Press.

Besides his work as a developer, Barry also taught economics and leadership at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. He left that post a decade ago after writing a newspaper essay criticizing Navy policy on sexual harassment and other issues.

When the smoke cleared, Barry, his wife, Sheila, and their five children settled happily in Chestertown. The kids included three adopted from India, Bangladesh and the Dominican Republic.

"Originally, we wanted to adopt a child from Vietnam, but right then it just was not possible," said Sheila Barry, who with her husband and various children, spouses and grandchildren is spending the summer at the family's beach house on Cuttyhunk Island, Mass.

Barry owns rental units in his native Massachusetts as well as here in the Kent County seat, including the historic house - now five apartments - where the flags are on display.

While his parents are away, son Ajay, 32, has charge of the family's Chestertown properties, including the lawn with the flags.

"At first, I thought it was crazy, but after a year or so doing it, you have a different attitude," Ajay Barry said. "What I've noticed is that people who volunteer to help get more and more silent the longer they stay. It reminds us of how much we have and how safe we are."

The family plans to leave the flags in place though the Independence Day weekend, when they'll need to come out again so the grass can be mowed. Next fall, Barry said, probably by Veterans Day, new flags will be installed.

chris.guy@baltsun.com

Online

See an interactive tribute to Marylanders killed in Iraq at baltimoresun.com/mdfallen

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