Carbondale group marks 5 years of honoring war dead
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
CARBONDALE ” Every Monday for five years at 8 a.m., be it raining, snowing, windy, frigid cold or a perfect clear blue Colorado morning, the same ceremonial routine has played out beneath the flagpole in front of Carbondale Town Hall.
The American flag is lowered to half staff as a group of people gathers in a circle. Each person is given a piece of paper with a list of names.
One by one, they take turns reading a handful of the names of U.S. soldiers killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ” a number that’s grown to more than 4,200 in those same five years.
A symbolic yellow ribbon is attached to the flag pole, along with a sign that is regularly updated with the number of troops and Iraqi civilians killed and wounded. It also has estimates of the number of soldiers who return with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and who are suicidal.
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For some, it’s been a form of public protest against the wars and the Bush administration’s policies. For others, it’s just a reason to take pause, reflect and quietly honor the sacrifices made.
This week, the group known as Wake Up Now marks its fifth anniversary of carrying out that weekly routine.
It’s the day before a new president, Barack Obama, is sworn into office with a pledge to bring a change in focus for the country on several fronts, but especially as it relates to the policies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It could signal a change in focus for this small group of local citizens as well.
“The thing I hope doesn’t occur is that it becomes political again,” said Jack Sebesta, who has been active with the group since a couple of months after the weekly flag-lowering ceremony began on Jan. 19, 2004.
“Some people have suggested that, with the new administration, it isn’t necessary for us to continue,” he said.
Sebesta doesn’t necessarily see it that way, but he respects that there are those who do. And there have certainly been reasons to protest, he said.
“It was a protest in a way, especially with the fact that the administration didn’t permit pictures to be taken of the returning coffins,” he said. “But I have mainly participated with the purpose of honoring those who have been killed, and I don’t feel that we ought to discontinue.
“I feel a great sadness for the people who have made sacrifices, especially since we as a nation have not really had to sacrifice anything,” Sebesta continued. “Even what’s going on now with the economy … those are small sacrifices to giving your life.”
The movement started at the Carbondale home of Jane Veit and her husband, Dick.
“I think we had 19 people at that first meeting, which was really kind of astonishing,” Jane Veit said. “There was a lot of complaining about the Bush presidency, and at some point someone in the group said, ‘I think they should have the flag lowered to half staff for all these people who are getting killed.'”
With that, they went before the Carbondale Board of Trustees and asked that the flag at Town Hall be lowered to half staff in honor of the war dead.
The request wasn’t without controversy. Some trustees questioned whether it might be seen as the town government protesting the war and President Bush. The local Boy Scout troop even weighed in with a reading of the guidelines on when the flag may be lowered to half staff.
“There were some questions raised about whether it was legal or not, but we found out it was something we could do,” said Russ Criswell, a former town trustee who was on the board at the time, and who often joins in the weekly ceremony.
“I’ve always felt that it was admirable that citizens were allowed the freedom to stand up against what was going on,” he said.
Instead of having the flag lowered every day, the compromise was to lower the flag just one day a week, on Mondays.
“That’s how it started,” Veit said. “I’m not sure who decided to start reading the names, but it was a wonderful idea.
“It did start as a protest, and as far as I’m concerned it’s still a protest,” added Veit, who said she may back out as soon as the Bush administration is out of office.
Over the years, Wake Up Now sponsored educational events and the e-mail list grew to about 60 people. They were also successful in convincing the Carbondale town board to pass a resolution denouncing the Patriot Act, one of about 300 cities and towns nationwide that took such action, but the only one in the Roaring Fork Valley that did so.
Sebesta points out that the original town board proclamation designating the Monday flag lowering concludes, “Be it further proclaimed, that Carbondale shall continue to honor our war dead in this manner until the state of war no longer exists.”
He’d love nothing more than for the “state of war” to end. But he questions whether that will be anytime soon. In the meantime, those who are dying should be honored, he said.
“The reason we do this is to recognize those who have been killed,” Sebesta said. “So, given the choice I would continue to go out there, so long as there were others who would join me.”
Occasionally, a passer-by will stop and ask what they’re up to.
“I just tell them I’m there because I think we should honor these people,” Sebesta said. “Whether we agree with the politics of it or not, that’s of little import. There are people giving their life for their country, and I just feel strongly that it’s worthy of our honoring them.”
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