Remembering the dead … and the living

A local college class discovers that it’s better to light one cell phone than to curse the darkness

Students at Sierra College plant crosses in honor of fallen American soldiers.

Students at Sierra College plant crosses in honor of fallen American soldiers.

Photo By Larry Dalton

If anthropology is the study of human beings—how we behave, interact and evolve—modern-day anthropologists might take heart from tidbits like this: As part of his regular semester, Matt Archer, a professor at Sierra College, assigned final projects to his cultural-anthropology class. But on Veterans Day, Don Ratkowski, a student who served in the first Gulf War, asked for a moment of silence in observation of the holiday (Archer thought it “weird” that classes were even held on Veterans Day). Ratkowski’s request resulted in a round-robin discussion touching passionately on the big, overarching social problems that interested the students, including the plight of undocumented workers and the fact that people already were forgetting about the approximately 1,300 U.S. soldiers who had died in Iraq by that time. One student, fed up with the complaining, turned the tide: “Let’s talk about solutions. What can we do?”

That question, remembered one student, silenced everybody. But it gave Archer an idea: scrap the final projects. Instead of ethnographic studies on nomadic surf culture and medicine wheels, he challenged his students to seek out solutions to the issues that resonated with them in their daily lives. They accepted his challenge and are currently providing a few small solutions to the issue that interested them the most: how to support the troops overseas, help Iraqi citizens and honor the war dead, regardless of their own personal feelings about the nature of the conflict itself.

To remind fellow students of the costs of war, on Tuesday, December 14, Archer’s anthropology students planted nearly 1,400 crosses, each labeled with the name and rank of a dead American soldier, in the grass on campus, while reading the names over the PA system.

During a previous class, the crosses sat in plastic tubs. They were made of two crossed popsicle sticks mounted on wooden barbecue skewers. The popsicle sticks were painted white, and while discussion went on in class, students slowly labeled them with black markers.

The planting of crosses was only part of the plan. Along with the memorial, the class also participated in an honored holiday tradition: sending care packages to American soldiers overseas. The class agreed that the soldiers in Iraq deserved their support, even if individual students didn’t support the war.

One student, Stacy Mayr, shook her head while she looked into the boxes. She couldn’t imagine the constraints under which the soldiers lived, she said.

But the costs of war don’t stop with American soldiers, and neither does the students’ charity. Mayr made approximately 20 calls, she said, before she finally got Maj. Steven Maloney, a family-assistance manager for Operation Ready Families, a program supported by the California National Guard.

Maloney knew of a military contact in Iraq who would share packages not just with troops but also with Iraqi families, “people who are basically collateral damage,” said Mayr.

By phone, Maloney confirmed that he knew a unit of about 50 soldiers who were involved in reconstruction projects as well as combat. He said the 579th Engineer Battalion from Petaluma had suffered a casualty rate of about 20 percent. The soldiers were especially good candidates because they worked closely with villagers during the reconstruction of schools.

The students made the crosses by hand from popsicle sticks and labeled them with the names of soldiers who’d died in the Iraq war.

Photo By Larry Dalton

In Iraq, said Mayr, people share gifts to strengthen relationships, so anything the students sent for the Iraqi families not only would improve the lives of the receivers, but also would improve the status of the soldiers doing the giving.

Everyone wins, said Mayr.

Before mailing the packages, Mayr sat with more than 30 students in a circle and gave them an update on her team’s project. The four big boxes were almost ready to be mailed, she said. They included hundreds of small toiletry items—packets of lotion, pairs of slippers, shaving kits, foot powder and toothbrushes—as well as packaged cookies and dried soups. One box, packed mainly for Iraqi children, was full of markers, crayons, drawing paper and stationery sets. Mayr said her own children had bought some of the supplies themselves. Other students had gathered donations from their workplaces, while others had requested supplies from local retailers.

Weight was becoming an issue, as the postage climbed to more than $200, so certain items were left out, like packets of apricot facial scrub.

“We decided they might not be into exfoliation right now,” said Mayr, making her classmates laugh.

Ratkowski gave a similar update, explaining that just the painting of the first few hundred crosses had taken him 17 hours, partly because of the difficulty of finding a place to lay them all out and then collecting them when the weather got bad. The original idea had been to plant them in Capitol Park, but another student, Marryann Evanson, told the class she had called the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department and learned there was no way they were going to be able to plant anything in Capitol Park.

“It’s just written in stone: absolutely no,” said Evanson, who had her own plan to organize free massages for returning vets.

Ratkowski explained that more crosses needed to be painted and labeled. Students quietly left their seats, went over to the plastic tubs full of fragile-looking crosses and began bundling them so that they could be handed out to students along with soldiers’ names. While discussion continued, Archer cut the long list of names into segments.

When the electricity temporarily went out, presumably because of the storm outside, the windowless room never quieted. Within seconds, one student held up his lighter with one hand, as if at a Van Halen concert, and continued to label crosses with the other. Girls popped open their cell phones, shining the light onto their desks, and continued to work.

Archer didn’t seem at all surprised by their reaction.

“The class voted to unify around one theme,” said Archer, who didn’t mind switching gears to pursue a project that inspired so much enthusiasm. “It was a dream situation for me.”