I wanted nothing to do with Western Nevada College’s Always Lost: A Meditation on War project when English professor Marilee Swirczek presented the idea in 2009 of personalizing the Iraq/Afghanistan Wars through literary work, combat photos, and a wall displaying the faces of U.S. military war dead since Sept. 11, 2001. Like much of America, I felt removed from these conflicts. What did I — without military experience or ties to those fighting half a world away — know about the cost of war? I was too busy plotting my own future to pay attention to these wars that were putting the futures of thousands at risk.But if my apathy was any evidence, this art/humanities exhibition needed to exist, needed to be contemplated and felt by people like me. So I silenced the inner voice saying that my ignorance would show in my writing, that I wasn’t man enough to think like a soldier or human enough to feel like a parent whose child might never come home. Marilee asked us to choose one person out of the thousands of casualties and write an elegy. I chose Army Sgt. Andrew C. Perkins who died in Samarra, Iraq, on March 5, 2007, in an act of unbelievable courage. Though his life was different from mine, it wasn’t the differences that struck me; it was the similarities — real and imagined — that brought Perkins to life, made him more than just a face on the exhibition’s Wall of the Dead.Writing that elegy forced me to examine what it would mean to be dead that day, at 27 years old, the same age Perkins was when he died from injuries sustained while repeatedly risking his life to help fellow paratroopers who were burning after a horrendous attack. I was full of dreams, just starting to figure out what my life was meant to be. I felt the future that Perkins lost, the hopes that his family and friends lost, multiplied by what thousands of others have lost in these wars, on both sides — a loss so profound that I not only felt selfish for looking away as long as I did, but cowardly. These wars are now personal for me, just as they should be for all of us.Since writing that elegy for Sgt. Perkins three years ago, I’ve harbored a quiet but persistent desire to meet his parents, to let them know their son’s life means something to me. I want to tell them what I’ve heard from countless exhibition patrons moved to tears upon reading the tribute I wrote for their son: that he’s as real to each of them now as he is to me. One of the most remarkable effects of Always Lost is that it unites people of all political inclinations — it doesn’t ask if these wars are right or necessary; it simply asks each of us to reflect on their costs. It refuses to turn a blind eye, and so leaves exhibition patrons with a new or renewed hope we can all share: a hope for peace. The exhibition makes Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom personal for everyone who sees it. After its initial installation at WNC in 2009, word of Always Lost spread and requests came from across the country. Always Lost has been traveling to colleges, universities, and veterans organizations since fall 2010 — a gift from Nevada to our nation —and has been invited to Washington, D.C. by U.S. Sens. Reid and Heller. But the exhibition is funded entirely by donations, and funds are needed to sustain it. During this season of thoughtful giving, still a time of war, I hope you’ll consider supporting Always Lost: A Meditation on War, to enable this “national treasure,” as one viewer called it, to continue traveling across our nation. Perhaps, with your help, Always Lost will travel to our nation’s capital, and I’ll be able to invite Sgt. Perkins’ family to see it. That would mean a lot to me, but, I’m sure, would mean the world to them.• Josh Galarza is an award-winning writer. He lives in Minden, where he works as a Montessori educator. To read Galarza’s elegy to Sgt. Perkins, email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.For information about Always Lost, go to http://www.wnc.edu/always_lost/. To make a donation, visit www.wnc.edu/foundation/. Specify that funds be directed to the exhibition.
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