Service honors fallen in Iraq, Afghanistan

The bell rang 12 times Sunday night symbolizing the 12 years of war for the United States.

The ringing bell announced the beginning of “A Peace Vigil for Lives Lost in Iraq and Afghanistan” at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge to remember American lives lost in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The idea to hold a memorial to remember lives lost in the two wars began in 2003 when Susan Fogleman, a church member, read a Newsweek article that talked about a U.S. Army reservist who died when a roadside bomb exploded, she told the congregation. The reservist was a teacher and had three children. Fogleman has three daughters and, at the time, was a teacher.

The article struck a chord, she said, and thus, the annual service was born.

“We live in a soundbite culture,” Nathan Ryan, junior pastor at the Unitarian Church, said before the service began. “If you think about the importance of each person, the divinity of each person, the capacity to transform the world. ... How do you quantify a person? If you think about each of these lights, it’s someone who has left a family behind.”

The war in Afghanistan began in October 2001 and the war in Iraq began in March 2003, according to the Department of Defense. As of 11 a.m. March 1, 4,488 U.S. military personnel and civilian contractor employees have died in Iraq and 2,169 military personnel and civilian contractor employees have died in Afghanistan, according to numbers from the Department of Defense’s website.

About 30 people attended the Sunday memorial. The Rev. Steve Crump, senior pastor of the church, said when the church first began hosting the wartime remembrance services, more than 100 people attended, but attendance has fallen in recent years because of what he called “war weariness.”

During the service, Rabbi Thomas Gardner, of Beth Shalom Synagogue, and Emad Nofal, chair of the Islamic Center of Baton Rouge, joined the Rev. Robin McCullough-Bade of the Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge and each offered individual prayers for peace in their respective Hebrew, Arabic and English languages.

In his opening remarks, Crump said the service honors not only those who died, but those who have been wounded. On the back wall of the sanctuary, about 50 strands of white lights, representing about 5,000 deaths, hang from the ceiling to symbolize those killed in the war.

“If we had space (on the wall) for the countless casualties and those wounded, they’re part of our conscience tonight and also our prayers,” Crump said.

Crump lit a candle and placed it in a chalice that stood on an island surrounded by sand atop a wooden altar.

Later, members of the audience walked up and lit smaller candles, placing them in the sand surrounding the larger candle. Crump said the smaller candles represented those individuals’ prayers for peace.

In the early years of the service, the church would light a candle for each person who died in the war, but as the war dragged on and the death toll rose, church members stopped because of the sheer number of candles needed.

Fogleman said she thinks the last year they lit candles for the dead was just before the death toll hit 4,000.

The service closed with a singing of “Let There be Peace on Earth.”

Before the event, Janetta Kriel, of Baton Rouge, said she comes each year as a way of protesting the wars.

“I just hate war and this war particularly seems to be a waste of time,” she said, referring to the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Marguerite Davis, a member of the Unitarian Church who served two years in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, said she looks at the service not only as a reminder of the people who died in the wars, but the people whose minds are broken and fractured upon returning home.

“You go over there and see your friends get blown up and be in your right mind,” Davis said. “We’ve got to stay together and get the community together to help veterans out there without a job and who are mentally unstable.”