Coming east on I-80, just about an hour and a half outside Chicago, the sign for the Middle Eastern Conflicts Memorial Wall seems jarringly out of place in the vast Midwestern landscape of golden green farms and blue-signed rest areas, tiny towns with Main Streets and the familiar logos of American consumption.
And even if you follow the sign off the interstate, it takes a while to find the memorial, the road winding right through Marseilles (pronounced Mahr-seh-less, not at all like its French namesake), a hamlet of 4,800 that, with two war memorials in less than a mile (the other is for local war dead) and an abundance of red-white-and-blueness in its choices for décor, seems abundantly if not extraordinarily patriotic.
But during this Arab Spring, with peaceful uprisings having turned bloody and the prospects of intervention in Lybia turning into another protracted involvement -- our third concurrent war -- this seemed the right time to visit.
And there it was, on the other side of town from I-80, resting peacefully on the banks of the Illinois River and just off a parking lot for what looks like an abandoned mall. Granite panels looking away from the water reflect the names of American military casualties. Here and there, flowers, rocks, a photograph. The waters, even in their stillness, provide the kind of background that makes it impossible to do anything but reflect.
Co-founder Tony Cutrano says the idea came to him while watching a Chicago anti-war demonstration on TV back in 2003. “Someone burned a flag, and I’m a Navy veteran,” he says, “so I said, let’s take a ride up there and show some support for our troops.”
By ride he meant on a motorcycle. Thousands of bikers followed him up to Chicago.
“We weren’t there to support the war – no one supports war,” says Cutrano, who works as part of a project management team for Bescoto in Chicago. “We were there for the veterans, the families. We got stuff thrown at us, got verbally abused. But at the end of it, I said, you know what? We’re gonna do this again. And we’re going to call it the Freedom Run.”
And they have, drawing as many as 40,000 bikers for their annual get together. The axis of all the activity is what came later, the wall, which is unique in two ways: One, unlike the memorial to the Vietnam War veterans, which was erected 20 years after the conflict, or the tribute to those who fought in World war II, which went up 60 years after the fact, this memorial was built while the conflicts were ongoing. And, two, it’s a totally private, supported by the "illinois Motorcycle Community," without a penny of government money.
“The first casualty of the first Iraq war was from Illinois,” says Cutrano, “a young man named Ryan Anthony Beaupre from a little town called St. Anne’s, and we” – meaning him and his motorcycle buddies – “went up and told his parents, this is what we’d like to do, set up a memorial.”
On June 23, 2003, they accomplished their goal. About 7,000 people showed up to support them, about three times the size of the town. And that got Cutrano thinking about doing it again, on a larger scale.
“Marseilles offered us a spot,” he says.
But why is it called the Middle East Conflicts Wall when its scope is actually global?
“Well, I had to call it something,” says Cutrano, who served during the Iran hostage crisis but didn’t see action. “The majority is from Middle East conflicts and terrorist acts. But there are also guys from the conflicts in Grenada, Lebanon.”
The list isn’t alphabetical, chronological or even by conflict.
“Look, when I asked the Pentagon for help, they said there were 130,000 service men and women killed since Vietnam,” says Cutrano, who pretty much runs the thing by himself. “But if you died in a theater of war or in a terrorist act, your name is up there.”
His goal right now is to raise funds for a visitor’s center and to add the 761 casualties that have occurred since the last time he updated the wall. And to host the next Freedom Run, which will taker place June 18 in Marseilles again. (The memorial's website has a full calendar of events.)
“I don’t know who put me in charge,” he says, “but that’s the way it is. Because this has to be done.”