On Monday, the Gainesville chapter of Veterans for Peace held its final Memorial Mile Memorial Day event – opting for an informational table rather than temporary tombstones. The table stood on the corner of Northwest Eighth Avenue and Northwest 31st Street, where a portion of the tombstones would normally be. The table, this year, served to educate the public while honoring service personnel who lost their lives serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In place of the over 6,000 temporary tombstones that are normally mounted for Memorial Day weekend, the organization placed large signs every few feet that shared statistics on the cost of war. During the combined wars, 6,925 service members “had their lives stolen,” said Scott Camil, the founder and president of the Gainesville chapter of VFP. The United States has also spent a total of $8 trillion on the two wars.
“Why do we have armed forces killing people all over the world?” asked Camil. “Part of the reason is our economy. The biggest expenditure of our economy is the military industrial complex… When you think about capitalism – capitalism needs products that get used up, so they can be made again. Well, damn, war uses products up. Bombs and bullets are one shot, and they have to be replaced.”
The VFP organization began its Memorial Mile event in 2007.
“When we started this, those wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) were going on and we did not support either war,” Camil said. “The war in Iraq was illegal… The war in Afghanistan was an unnecessary war… This was an educational project – it’s to educate about a war that we were protesting.”
Starting at about 10 p.m. on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, Camil and his team of about 100 volunteers would begin to set up the tombstones along either side of the road. The tombstones, each about 12 inches in height, were adorned with the soldier’s name, death date and an outline of the state they were from. In a smaller font, often overlooked by the public, the tombstones are labeled with an “A” or “I” followed by a number. The letter stands for which war they were in and the number keeps track of the death toll.
“One hundred people working throughout the night on their hands and knees, in the dirt, in the dark with flashlights on their heads and flashlights in their mouths making those rows (of tombstones) straight,” Camil said.
Volunteers spent countless hours marking the places for each tombstone and checking that everything was in order over and over again to ensure there were no mistakes.
The dedication of the volunteers was not only present while they set up the display, but for the entire time that it was up. Volunteers would watch over the tombstones in shifts, paying them special care and attention, fixing any that fell over. They also helped people, some who traveled from different states, to find their loved one’s tombstone and sometimes leave a written message.
The last time the temporary tombstones lined the streets was Memorial Day weekend in 2019. The event was held virtually in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. The organization did not set up the tombstones this year because the wars are over – the last troops left Afghanistan in August of 2021.
Camil said that when the organization started this project, they would only end it when the wars stopped. The wars ended, so the VFP set up the information booth as a way to say goodbye to their community, as this was typically where they had the most interaction with people.
The informational booth held a binder containing the name and details of every United States military personnel who was killed in both wars. It also had volunteer logs from previous years where volunteers were able to log what they saw and experienced during their shift. There was also a visitor log that gave those visiting the tombstones the opportunity to write messages to anyone reading or their loved ones.
One tombstone with the name Jeffrey Wershow was in the center of the table.
On July 6, 2003, Army Spc. Jeffrey Wershow volunteered to serve as a member of the security detail for a meeting at Baghdad University between Army civil affairs officers and university officials. Wershow went into the university’s student cafeteria to buy a 7-Up, according to The Military Times. On his way out, he was shot and killed. At the age of 22, Wershow was the first U.S. soldier casualty from Gainesville in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
Though the Gainesville chapter of VFP will no longer mount the display of over 6,000 tombstones, they will still continue to educate and facilitate conversations around war, peace and soldiers like Wershow who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
A section of Northwest Eighth Avenue renamed Memorial Mile, where the curb has been painted purple and historical markers flank either side of the road, will serve as a memorial and reminder of the event held there for the last 15 years.
“I hope people ask questions (when passing Memorial Mile),” City Commissioner Harvey Ward said. “I hope they stop and say ‘Why is this curb purple? What do these signs mean?’”
The Gainesville chapter of VFP is in the process of planning its 36th annual Winter Solstice Peace Concert. This yearly event is where the organization raises the majority of the money to work for the next year. The organization will also continue to hold its Peace Poetry Contest for Alachua County Schools as well as the VFP Peace Scholarship.
Though the future does not hold any specific Memorial Day events sponsored by the Gainesville chapter of VFP, community leaders still want the public to understand and acknowledge the true meaning of the day.
“Memorial Day, for me, is when veterans get together and talk about old times and remember their fallen friends,” Camil said. “But I think for the public it’s a holiday – it’s a day you don’t have to go to work. I don’t think that they really reflect upon war and the amount of destruction and loss of life that is connected to war.”