Two stern-faced young Marines, each sporting freshly cropped, nearly jet-black hair, walked slowly by the table topped with literature, buttons and other paraphernalia. They've already peered at the vast grid of crosses stuck into the sand and had obviously seen one of the signs informing observers that the crosses symbolized and honored the 3,118 American service members who've died in Iraq.
One of the Marines wore a tight-fitting athletic shirt from a school in Hollister, Calif. The other one smoked a cigarette. They had a look about them that suggested that cracking a smile might be an activity slightly more challenging than a five-mile morning run.
The Marine in the Hollister shirt approached a bearded man nearly 50 years his senior and calmly asked what was going on. "Is this a protest?" he asked, as his friend took another puff.
The man with the beard, David Barrows, a 67-year-old sociology professor at Point Loma Nazarene University, soft-played the conversation.
Not exactly, he told his young questioner. It's more of a memorial, he said, explaining that honoring the dead was a way of demonstrating the high cost of war.
The young men didn't appear convinced that the display and the sentiment driving it were something they could get completely behind, but, at the same time, Barrows' explanation didn't provoke them. OK, Hollister said, because using the names of military men and women in a "protest" would have "upset" him. The smoker agreed.
Barrows said he understood, and after a little more conversation, the Marines were on their way. A careful listen to what Barrows was telling the young men revealed that a "protest" is precisely what the rows and columns of crosses were meant to be. The sociologist was simply making sure not to use the term his interrogators didn't want to hear.
In wartime, "protest" is a fighting word, and Barrows wasn't looking for a fight.
"You can say things that divide you and push you apart, or you can try to bring people together," Barrows said, "and I'd rather bring us together-reconcile differences rather than put up those words that divide you."
Acknowledging that it was a protest would have created conflict, Barrows said. But "he listened to me for a while, and I'd rather get him to listen to me a little bit.... We hope we can solve problems without warfare. He heard that."
Barrows is a member of the San Diego Veterans For Peace, Hugh Thompson Memorial Chapter-named for the helicopter pilot who stopped the My Lai massacre in progress in Vietnam on March 16, 1968. Barrows was in the Army from 1957 to 1963, a Cold War veteran who served between the Korean and Vietnam wars, never seeing combat.
The Veterans For Peace had planted the crosses early that Saturday morning on a patch of beach adjacent to the Oceanside Pier, most bearing names of the dead and each accompanied by a small American flag and a red Solo cup shielding a small candle from the wind. They call it Arlington West, and they do it at locations around the county once every four to six weeks. It's a low-key action aimed at protesting the policy of war while showing respect for the men and women asked to put themselves in harm's way. The candles, lighted just before night falls, make the display even more impressive.
The umbrella Veterans For Peace organization was founded in 1985. Its website says: "Our collective experience tells us wars are easy to start and hard to stop and that those hurt are often the innocent. Thus, other means of problem solving are necessary." In addition to opposing the Iraq war, the group has participated in fact-finding missions investigating human-rights abuses and environmental degradation amid U.S. military involvement in places such as Korea, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. It's recognized as a non-governmental organization by the United Nations. San Diego's chapter is one of 160 nationwide.
Under mid-afternoon overcast skies, a man who looked about 30 approached one of Barrows' mates and asked what turned out to be a common question: Are the names on the crosses in alphabetical order? As time passes, more and more Americans know someone who's been killed in Iraq. This man was looking for a cross bearing the name Randy Rosacker, whom he and his wife had known in high school. Rosacker, the man said, had frequently vowed to be killed in action and had gotten his wish.
The man, the veteran for peace he approached and a CityBeat reporter each took a row and started looking for the cross with Rosacker's name. But with so much ground to cover, the guy soon gave up, thanked his helpers and left to join his wife in the nearby parking lot.
An Internet search found that Rosacker was 21-year-old Marine Cpl. Randal Kent Rosacker of San Diego, who was one of the first to die in Iraq, killed in combat near An Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003, just three days after the U.S invasion began. A website, Fallenheroesmemorial.com, reported that Rosacker's dad, Navy submariner Rod Rosacker, said he'd tried to convince his son to go to college instead of joining the Marines but was unsuccessful. A friend of Rosacker, Marine Sgt. Gabriel Dejesus, posted a message on the website that said, in part, "Randy always had a biggest heart a man could have. I played high school football and baseball with him. I remember towards the end of high school he used to show up to baseball practice in marine corps shirts and would conduct our baseball workout military style.... I pay my respect and salute you and your family. For you are my hero, Randy. SEMPER FI!"
The man looking for Rosacker's cross wasn't the last person to show up and look for a name. A middle-aged Oceanside couple wandered by and began looking for the wife's cousin's son, Casey Crate. Unlike the man before them, they found Crate's cross almost immediately. According to the Fallen Heroes website, he was a 26-year-old Air Force Staff Sergeant from Spanaway, Wash., who "died in the crash of an Iraqi air force aircraft during a training mission in eastern Diyala province" on May 30, 2005.
"Casey grew up down the street from me so we happened to attend the same schools starting in grade school," reads a message posted on the website by G.J. Worthy of Federal Way, Wash. "He was a couple of years behind me in age, but I remember his presence well as he was always positive, trustworthy and kind. EVERYONE liked Casey. As high school kids I recall on numerous occasions driving passed [sic] his house and he would take a break from fine-tuning his '65 Impala to wave."
Rosacker and Crate are who the Veterans For Peace have in mind when they talk of protesting the policy while respecting the people in uniform. "Veterans have a credibility for having served and they want not to blame the servicemen," Barrows said. "They're just good American kids doing what they think they should be doing."
Their beef is with the decision-makers, not the troops. Barrows noted that the group was once asked to participate in a demonstration at the gate at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base. They politely declined.
The Hugh Thompson Memorial Chapter, Barrows said, has spirited debates about what the U.S. policy should be in Iraq. "I don't know if we have a consensus on that; I think we would be like America," he said. "We kind of made a mess, and we have some responsibility to clean it up. What would happen if we pulled everybody out by June 30, as I've seen people propose? Would we leave a mass carnage, and would we want that on our conscience? I don't know the answer to that.
"We have members who are against all wars," he added. "We have members who are very much against this war but are not against war in principle."
The duration of this war has created logistical problems on scales both grand and small. Setting up Arlington West now takes four hours, even though the Veterans For Peace have only about 2,300 crosses, roughly 800 short of the total number of deaths. It takes about an hour to light the candles. And the trailer the group purchased to haul the display around is full.
"So, it's a lot of work for something that lasts a day and comes down," Barrows said.
Late in the afternoon, a woman with a somewhat bohemian appearance pedaled by on her bicycle. Without stopping, she said, not very loudly, "Hopefully, Congress will turn this around so you won't have to do this anymore."