Almost as soon as Ann and Don Bender marked the 4th of July by planting a field of more than 3,500 flags one for each of the American troops killed in Iraq the elements began to take a toll. The baking sun and sudden storms of a Great Plains summer left the little flagsticks warped and broken and the fabric bleached and torn.
But that was nothing compared to the damage done in the dark hours of Sunday morning by vandals who kicked down thousands of the flags and left behind a cardboard sign with a single word splattered in red spray paint: "MURDERERS."
"You'll have to excuse me, sir, for crying," said a big bear of a man named Andy Enders as he stood by the remains of what had been "the most beautiful memorial ever created by private citizens, in my opinion."
Other veterans and passersby were busy picking up fallen flags, piling up Old Glorys by the hundreds, smoothing the flags, stacking the stomped sticks and wondering what will be salvaged of the display that has moved and intrigued this town for months.
Its power lay in its simplicity. The Benders live on six tree-shaded acres along one of Kansas City's main thoroughfares, called State Line Road because it marks the boundary between Missouri and Kansas. Thousands of drivers pass their home each day. In the long stretch of grass between the road and their white rail fence, they placed flags to mark the rising toll of the war, with a hand-printed sign at each end of the field displaying the total. On Sunday, the signs said 3,860.
Ann, 51, and Don, 49, oppose the war. But their memorial was open to all sorts of interpretations, as is evident from the stack of thank you notes that the Benders have collected. "I'm not sure if your display is to say thank you to the men and women who are serving our country," one Air Force veteran wrote, "or if it's intended to bring attention to the audacity and stupidity of our elected leaders." One woman pulled into the driveway bearing a photograph of her nephew, killed in action the day before. Another day, a Marine in uniform got out of his car to stand at attention and salute. Another day, the phone rang and Ann heard a woman on the line announce, "My son is one of those flags."
In any event, the Benders' plan to remove the flags after the Independence Day weekend gave way to a much larger project of updating and maintaining the display. Don, who runs the truck-parts business founded by his grandfather, ordered another 1,000 flags to augment his original supply of 4,000. He, his wife and their two daughters straightened the flags after storms, replaced damaged flags and added new ones with grim regularity.
"We would stand at one end and realize that we couldn't even see the other end," Ann Bender recalled. "And every one is some mother's child. I don't know what's harder, the young ones, 19, 20, 21, who barely had a chance to live, or the older guys, in their 30s and 40s, who leave wives and children behind."
Just when they began to wonder how much longer they could keep the project going, a group of local veterans volunteered to groom and replant the memorial in time for Veterans Day. About a dozen men, using plumb lines and measuring sticks, worked four full days last week replanting the flags in perfectly spaced and tidy rows.
Enders was one of the volunteers. A veteran of the Marine Corps who served in Vietnam's Quang Tri province, he saw the memorial as a way of honoring the men and women who serve in a divisive, controversial war. "They deserve this recognition," he said, "and their families deserve it. As of yesterday we had every single flag out. That anyone could do this," Enders gestured toward the damaged flags, "and call themselves Americans? I assume they were kids, and they need to understand that these men and women have given their lives so that others can stay home and enjoy college or high school without fear."
He stooped to pick up another broken flagstick. "It was so beautiful," Enders said.