“There he is, there he is,” she said, pointing to a photo of a young soldier.
The young woman in her 30s took several steps back, tears slowly streaming down her cheeks. Hands clasped. She continued to look at the wall of those military men and women who were killed in either Iraq or Afghanistan during a decade of war.
An older woman then hugged her, letting silence play out the emotions.
Jaime Kirk, a Churchill County High School graduate who now works at Western Nevada College’s Fallon campus, said the young man pictured in the display served with her little brother in Baghdad.
“I have friends of my brother here,” she said. “I sent care packages. I knew his friends in his squad.”
Kirk’s friend, Buck Wagner, stood next to her, also reflecting on the wall.
“I knew many who served,” he said, although most of his friends returned safely from the two wars.
In what began as a class assignment at WNC turned into a national display to show the cost of war and to honor those who died since Sept. 11, 2001, in two overseas countries. The heart of the “Always Lost: A Meditation on War” exhibit is 35 panels showing thousands of casualties from war.
It was on one panel, though, that Kirk found a close friend of her brother’s.
Another panel shows the image of Spc. Jason Disney, a 1999 Churchill County High School graduate who died at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, in February 2002. To this date, Disney is Churchill County’s only native son who died in either Iraq or Afghanistan in the Global War on Terror. The command also named the main road at BAF after Disney.
In many ways, the war has come home to thousands of people who never served in the military but knew of someone who did.
Originally, the exhibit would be shown for three weeks,” said Project Manager Amy Roby, who was a student in Merilee Swirczek’s writing class in 2009. No one, including student or the instructor, envisioned this display capturing a national audience as word of mouth spread like wildfire.
“It has captured the imagination of people around the country,” said Roby, adding the project was selected as Nevada’s Sesquicentennial Exhibit during the yearlong celebration of the Silver State’s birthday.
Roby said the exhibit has toured the state, and the Churchill County Museum, which opened the six-week program on Thursday, became the 10th site. Accompanying the exhibit is a collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning photos of the Iraq war taken by two Dallas Morning News photographers. The exhibition shows Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. through Sept. 27 in the Dodge-Fitz Changing Exhibits Gallery.
The Nevada Department of Veterans Services has lent its support for the exhibit to tour the state.
At first Roby said she was reluctant to become part of the project. Coming from a family of servicemen, she discovered her father and grandfather never talked about their military service.
Yet, the writing class that began to look at “A Meditation on War” had students who were involved by serving in many United States’ wars from World War II to Vietnam to Operations Iraq and Enduring freedoms. Once the project wrapped up, it first showed at a University of Wisconsin campus in 2010.
Soon, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid and then Congressman Dean Heller (now Nevada’s junior U.S. senator) pledged their support. Benefactors stepped forward to donate funding. The personalization of war captured many people’s inner thoughts, discovering that seeing faces associated with names was much better than hearing about the numbers of those killed.
Retired Maj. Kevin Burns, who fought in Desert Shield/Desert Storm as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, said he enjoyed Swirczek’s writing classes, but he wanted to see his classmates develop a theme. That’s where his idea of a military exhibit that told stories and showed photographs became the main focus of the exhibit.
Burns said the New York Times inspired him because when the next group of 1,000 servicemen or women died, the newspaper printed 500 photos on one page, the next 500 on a facing page.
“These people went to war for the American citizen,” said Burns, who deployed to Saudi Arabia to work on wheeled vehicles in the desert.
The project to gain more information on each fallen soldier, marine, airman or sailor became painstakingly hard. Burns said their research took students to family website pages, Facebook and some Department of Defense websites. Local newspaper articles helped.
“It was a tough one to look at the family websites,” Burns said.
Photos and information would show a vibrant man or woman, but now the focus centered on their lives that were lost in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“If our sons and daughters are dying over there, we needed to know about that,” Burns said. “If we found those who committed suicide over there or home, they deserve to be included as a casualty.”
Sadly, students discovered about 100,000 servicemen and women have committed suicide as a result of 14 years of war. Furthermore, Swirczek said art and education can change people’s thinking.
“As a teacher, I want students to know they make a difference,” she added.
According to WNC, the Daughters of the American Revolution, John C. Fremont Chapter, awarded Swirczek its Medal of Honor for patriotism for her stewardship of the exhibition. Carson City Mayor Robert Crowell calls the exhibition “our community’s gift to the nation,” and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval recognized it with an official proclamation on Veterans Day 2014.
Swirczek said the exhibit is not surprised with audiences’ reactions to the exhibit.
“Every time I see it, it has the same effect on me as when I first saw it,” she said. “For a teacher, this is a transcendent experience for me.”