‘Always Lost’ exhibition finds good company at veterans conference

The Wall of Dead as seen at a Michigan exhibition.

The Wall of Dead as seen at a Michigan exhibition.

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Western Nevada College’s acclaimed creative writing/photographic exhibit, Always Lost: A Meditation on War, continues to make an emotional impact on thousands of people across our nation. While it tours Wisconsin this month, Marilee Swirczek, WNC Professor Emerita of English and co-creator of the exhibition, was in Long Beach, Calif., sharing the story of “Always Lost” at a national veterans conference.

To help raise awareness of the exhibition, Swirczek and project coordinator Amy Roby attended the “Keep the Spirit of ‘45 Alive” conference in San Diego. Representatives of numerous veterans’ organizations attended the invitation only event. The Always Lost exhibit was specifically invited as the only higher education presentation.

The trip put Swirczek and Roby into direct contact with people and organizations that could potentially help the exhibition continue to travel the country. Most important, relationships began to develop with people and organizations they wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to meet.

“We were honored and humbled to be invited and for Always Lost: A Meditation on War to be recognized by these organizations,” Roby said. “It seemed a wonderful way to help bridge the divide between the American public and the military personnel currently serving or who are veterans of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. It’s exciting to be part of a grassroots effort to heighten awareness of the contributions of those who are serving or have served in the armed forces.”

Roby and Swirczek presented a video about the exhibition during the event. One attendee, a Vietnam War veteran, caught Swirczek’s eye.

“I watched him as he watched our video; at one point he bowed his head and mouthed ‘wow’,” she said. “At another point he caught my eye, gave me two thumbs up and mouthed ‘thank you’. That gesture confirmed for me the impact that Always Lost has on those who view it.”

The conference concluded with a wreath laying ceremony recognizing the sacrifices of American veterans since WWI. Roby and Swirczek were invited to lay the wreath representing the thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan war casualties.

While flying home, Swirczek found herself seated next to a young man who is in the Navy. He was on his way to Fallon Naval Air Station for special training before being deployed to Afghanistan. He told her about his wife, his baby on the way, and his eagerness to serve our country. She told him about the exhibition and he promised to watch “The Story of Always Lost” video and share it with his buddies on base.

“It seemed a fitting end to my trip,” she said. “it gave me renewed hope for the healing and awareness that this exhibition brings to others. I wished him luck. I hope he has a long and wonderful life.”

In the long term, Roby and Swirczek hope that Always Lost will be able to be experienced throughout the U.S. “I am hopeful that the exhibition will make its way to most of the country, and then find a permanent home,” Roby said. “We just want to provide a place where people can contemplate the personal and collective costs of war.”

“Keep the Spirit of ‘45 Alive” is a grassroots campaign dedicated to commemorating the anniversary of the end of WWII. The organization hopes to establish a permanent national “Spirit of ‘45 Day” in August to commemorate the end of that war.

About ‘Always Lost’

Always Lost: A Meditation on War began in a classroom at Western Nevada College in 2008 when Marilee Swirczek, an English professor at the time, gave her class a writing assignment regarding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Students studied the faces of the war dead found in news articles and online, and wrote essays about the experience.

At the heart of the exhibition is the Wall of the Dead, which features the faces of the more than 6,500 servicemen and women who have died in the wars since September 11, 2001. Those images, combined with the writings of the students and other Northern Nevadans, and Pulitzer Prize winning photos used with permission from the Dallas Morning News, comprise the exhibit.

Amy Roby was a student in the English writing class that created the exhibition. She is now project manager of the ‘Always Lost’ exhibition. The project is completely funded by donations, which are continually needed to keep the “Wall of the Dead” updated.

The exhibition finished its run at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee and will open at University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, on Sunday.


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