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The beauty in the details: Idaho's 'Field of Heroes'

In Pocatello, Idaho, virtually the entire town has been involved in a special Memorial Day celebration. NBC's Mike Taibbi reports.

By Mike Taibbi, NBC News correspondent

POCATELLO, Idaho --  I was walking past a hard-used SUV when the passenger window rolled down and a woman’s crooked finger emerged, summoning me over to talk.

“See that man over there, in the red cap?” she asked. “That’s my husband.  He started all this…” 

‘All this.’ As I let my vision follow hers, I saw a vista beneath a morning drizzle of more than 6,000 simple white crosses arranged more or less precisely, filling the entire soccer field behind Pocatello’s Century High School.  The crosses, seized together by a local Korean War veteran and then painted, labeled and tapped carefully into the turf by hundreds of volunteers of every age and interest, were the once-a-year memorial to the fallen in America’s two longest wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We have right now 6,378 casualties,” said the man in the cap, who introduced himself as John Rogers.  “Each cross has a label, with the name and unit and casualty date…and if we can keep this going we’re not gonna forget them.”

I told him his wife Joyce had explained his motivation to meon the day he came home to San Francisco from his war, Vietnam, a “hippie girl” protester had met him as he stepped off the ship and let him know for the first time what his welcome home would be like …  no matter his two Purple Hearts and three tours fighting for his country.

John nodded.  “She come up to me, she stops and holds up her arms like this…”  He pantomimed carrying an infant.  “And she says, ‘Hey, you baby burner!’

So in 2004, with the controversial Iraq war a year old and Afghanistan an intensifying warzone following 9/11, he decided to see to it that the veterans fighting and dying in those two conflicts would be treated differently.  He got some fellow veterans to help him find the wood for the crosses and to fabricate simple labels, and talked the town into giving him the use of a piece of land. Then he set up the first “Field of Heroes.”

It was a simple idea, “sort of like the Vietnam Memorial in Washington,” Rogers said.  A gathering place where each name with identifying details would allow loved ones to reclaim moments of personal connection and remembrance, while permitting strangers who just needed to give thanks a gateway to learn what they choose to learn about the heroes who gave their lives so the rest of us can continue to flourish in ours.

That first year, there were fewer than 1,400 crosses.  Now, with well over 6,000, there’s almost no more room for additional crosses on Century High’s field;  but the Iraq War is effectively over, and Afghanistan is winding down.

Mike Taibbi / NBC News

Iraq war veteran Bruce Marley paints the crosses marking fallen comrades at Pocatello, Idaho's 'Field of Heroes.' Each cross includes the soldier's name, rank, unit, and type of casualty.

“If we’re lucky, we won’t need this eventually,” Rodgers said.  “But look,” he continued, gesturing. “Now we have people … veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan  they come here and find the special friend they lost over there  they get down on their knees and pray, in front of their crosses.”

And then there are the loved ones of the fallen: like Tiffany Petty, whose husband Jerrick Petty, with two toddlers back home in Pocatello, volunteered to go to Iraq only to be killed three days after landing.  Tiffany spent several days with the volunteers affixing labels on the crosses of the other war dead, whose service and sacrifice have too often been overlooked by too many.

“I’ve seen that happen, and it just hurts,” she told me. “It hurts your heart, it hurts your soul  we need to remember these people.”  She looked across the broad field, a thick coil of labels hanging from one wrist.  “And we need to remember them not as a group of people, but as specific people.”

Prepping for Memorial Day 

For a few years now, Pocatello’s “Field of Heroes” has been too big a job for John Rogers to handle with just a handful of friends.  Now Bannock County is lending a hand, and whole platoons of volunteers plow into a full week of preparatory work so the field will be ready when the long Memorial Day weekend starts. 

Mike Taibbi / NBC News

Pocatello, Idaho's annual memorial, 'Field of Heroes,' honors each of the dead service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Scout troops, high school kids, and senior citizens pitch in, alongside strangers who are moved to lend a hand. Big tents with generator-fired heaters warm the volunteers; the local Sign-A-Rama shop makes and donatesthe waterproof labels; and professional surveyors measure the field and line up the rows so the matrix of crosses looks the way it should.  In the middle of the Snake River Plain, in the shadow of the foothills of the Rockies, more than a full brigade of the honored dead appear in silent and precise formation.

The visitors come from all over the West, bonding over a patriotism that’s as humbling as it is palpable, and understanding each other’s tears.  In fact, there’s nothing like it anywhere in the country, though the feelings generated by a visit to this Pocatello yearly shrine are like those that arise from a famous national shrine:

“Arlington Cemetery is a long way from here,” said Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad.  “There’s a special spirit there  but you come here, you can feel that same spirit.

“It’s immense now,” Rogers said, a touch of wistfulness in his voice as he surveyed what his simple idea had turned into.  “But it’s not just a field of crosses…you can come out and read each name…the dates, the places they died…and if you want you can learn their stories.

It’s important, that we don’t forget the young people we’ve sent to war.

The old soldier smiled.  “Oh yeah,” he said, pointing to the flags stretched by the breeze on the periphery of the field. Each flag was accompanied by a yellow streamer.  “I still make the printed yellow ribbons for every local soldier coming home.  I’ll keep doing that.