WAITSFIELD - Almost directly across the street from the Punch Bowl, the Mad River's nude swimming hole in Waitsfield, a large swath of open land is peppered with several thousand, miniature white flags. In the middle of the field a plain white sign reads: "2802 American Military Dead in Iraq."
"Last week was a tough week for us," says political activist Russ Bennett. "I had to put in 18 new flags."
Bennett, founder of Northland Visual Design and a set designer for music festivals such as Bonnaroo, has been installing these flags for more than a year. Each one represents an American soldier killed in Iraq. The Waitsfield memorial is the continuation of a display Bennett and others installed on the Statehouse lawn last September for an antiwar demonstration. Observing the rows of flags forces one to acknowledge the human toll of the war in this country - never mind in Iraq.
On a recent weekday, several cars with out-of-state license plates had parked on the side of the road to take in Bennett's field of flags. "I'm glad to see that people are stopping and looking," he says. "I had a fellow the other day say, 'I hate that thing.' I think he hates it because it is a constant reminder."
Though Bennett is adamantly opposed to war, he strongly believes that, for the sake of military families, the memorial should be apolitical. "War is a failure of the human being on every social level," he suggests.
Mowing the field - a task which requires removing nearly 3000 flags - can be tedious, Bennett admits. "You handle the whole burden all over again."
Ned Kelley, a Vietnam veteran whose son is currently deployed in Iraq, maintains the memorial when Bennett is away. "When the government won't let us see the bodies or the flags, we're not connected," he notes.
How does he feel about having a son fighting in this war? "It sucks," Kelley says. "I sit here in my house, and when somebody comes up the road, I wonder, are the military coming to tell me my son has just been killed? Or is it the mailman?"
Bennett's source for statistics is Iraq Coalition Casualty Count - www.icasualties.org . The site also logs the number of wounded, which registers just over 44,000. And counting.