Walking the Memorial Mile

Tom Krajewski and Jane Jensen oversee the Memorial Mile, a tribute to soldiers who've died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both are volunteers for the Madison chapter of Veterans for Peace.

Madison, WI – Along Atwood Ave., on Madison’s east side, 5,486 cardboard tombstones stretch for roughly a mile, each one representing a soldier who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. Of these, 107 are adorned with Wisconsin’s state flag, indicating the native sons and daughters who’ve died in combat.  The memorial, now in its fourth year, runs through next Saturday.

Watching over the memorial is Tom Krajewski and Jane Jensen, who I interviewed in 2006 for a long-feature I wrote on the struggles combat vets face when returning to civilian life. Both Jensen and Krajewski are volunteers with the Madison chapter of Veterans for Peace.

“The primary purpose of the memorial is to educate people on the cost of war,” says Krajewski. “It has a strong effect. I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘That’s all there is?'”

Like standing before the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., with more than 58,000 names of soldiers who died in that conflict, walking aside nearly 5,500 markers, each memorializing a life lost, is humbling in ways that are difficult to describe. Add to this the tens-of-thousands of civilian casualties – those Iraqis and Afghans who’ve died in roadside bombings, been killed by errant missiles or wrongly targeted by the military  – and it becomes impossible to walk away untouched by these miserable deaths and the consequent miseries they imposed on loved ones.

I drove by the Memorial Mile once in 2007, its first year in Madison. But stopping, walking and reflecting makes it more personal. It removes that distance, that safe space that buffers the abstract from the concrete. Fifty-five-hundred is an aggregate number. A lump sum. The totality of nine years of carnage and bloodletting in places so foreign and faraway that we’re virtually impervious to the fear, the danger, the horror these soldiers faced before their lives ended.

It’s easy to drive by and honk in support.

But walking the Memorial Mile drives home the point that each one of these little white tombstones represents a life cut short, a grieving family, unfulfilled dreams, broken promises of a better world. It ceases to be a long white blur on the periphery, becoming instead a reminder that the world remains a dangerous place. There is something to be said for those who’ve died to ensure that conflict and instability don’t infect our borders. It’s why they’re given a holiday.

Whether or not we agree with the usefulness of war in general or these wars in particular is beside the point. Memorial Day isn’t about politics, agendas or grandstanding; it’s about people who’ve given their lives defending the idea of America, as imperfect as this country is. It’s about paying respects to those whose services to the wars waged have aided our relative safety and stability in the homeland.

I’d bet not many of us think too deeply about this during our Memorial Day Weekend picnics, parades and shopping sprees. In Madison, there are no insurgents bent on obliterating entire city blocks. No religious extremists plotting assassinations, abductions, beheadings. No one is planting bombs along East Washington Ave. We take for granted that there’s little risk of suicide bombers turning Bratfest into a bloodbath.

The Memorial Mile is a testament that such security is not preordained.

4 Comments

  1. Jane Jensen says:

    Thank you so much.  Your text is perfect.  I have sent it to many places, as well as our 643 memberMilitary Families for Peace group.Jane

  2. Stephanie says:

    Great article. Thank you Jane and Tom for your dedication.

  3. JoAnn S. says:

    Jane, I have created a website petition to end the war in Afghanistan, and would like to ask for your input on some questions I have.  Please call me or click “Contact Us” on my site <a href=”http://www.EndTheAfghanWar.com”>www.EndTheAfghanWar.com</a> Thanks, JoAnn S., an old acquaintance from P.W.P.

  4. Jane Jensen says:

    Just rec’d email/invite to a mtg. planning this yr’s Memorial Day event!  

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