PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Nga Tong and her fiance took a walk in Roger Williams Park on Friday afternoon and came across a vast field marked with 6,844 American flags twisting in the breeze.
Each flag poked out of a soldier’s boot. And each boot had a tag bearing the photo of a U.S. service member killed in military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere since Sept. 11, 2001.
Like many others who happened upon the Boots On the Ground memorial on Friday, Tong was visibly moved by the size of the presentation, which, of course, is a reflection of the many lives sacrificed in the campaign known as the War on Terror.
But for someone like Tong, who actually knew one of the casualties, the memorial offered another experience: Soon she was hunting for a particular boot tagged with the name of a young man who grew up on her street in Fitchburg, Massachusetts.
The boots and flags and tags, which will be on display in the park until 4 p.m. Monday, represent a year-long project by Operation Stand Down Rhode Island (OSDRI), with support from platoons of volunteers and a group of sponsors.
Dee DeQuattro, a former Channel 6 reporter turned communications director at OSDRI, developed the idea last year.
She and others at OSDRI, including her fiancé, David Rothermel, a veteran of three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, pursued the project with assistance from Lynn St. Germain-Lundh, a West Warwick woman who lost her son in 2006.
“It quickly became bigger than all of us,” DeQuattro said Friday as she reflected on the logistical challenges of gathering almost 7,000 boots and flags.
It required some sponsorships from Nick, Ron and Pete Cardi, Cardi’s Furniture; Citizens’ Bank, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island, Warwick Mall, iHeartMedia, Home Depot, Seasons Market, Michael Sabitoni, president of Build RI, and Michael McKelvy, president of Gilbane Building Company.
In the early months of the effort, they succeeded in getting donations of boots, usually in the hundreds. But the project needed thousands, DeQuattro said.
Finally, she said, the Veterans Administration found a way to contribute thousands of boots toward the effort honoring all service members killed during more than a decade of anti-terrorism operations in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
But there was a caveat.
“They weren’t laced,” DeQuattro.
Those who served and sacrificed laced up their boots, DeQuattro said, so the boots had to be laced.
What it took to get the job done speaks to the enormity of a number like 6,844. More than 100 volunteers worked for three days, between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. to lace the boots, DeQuattro said.
It took the volunteers two days to set up each boot with a flag. They set them up in the large field that rolls out from the Temple of Music.
Germain-Lundh, 56, saw the boots Friday morning.
“They didn’t even have the flags up yet,” she said. “It took my breath away.”
St. Germain-Lundh’s son, Brian, a Marine, died when the seven-ton truck he was riding in rolled over in the midst of a flash flood near Al Asad, Iraq, in 2006.
A few months later, Marine Lance Cpl. Geofrey R. Cayer, Tong’s childhood acquaintance, died during an incident described as non-hostile in Iraq.
He was just 20 years old.
“It was one of the first times we’ve heard of someone within Fitchburg schools dying,” she recalled.
She could see the boot with Cayer’s tag and she could see thousands of others.
“We lost a lot of young people,” she said. “To see the volume of flags and boots. It’s surreal.”