Posted on Mon, Nov. 12, 2007

A 'tombstone' tribute to Del. Valley war dead

Philadelphia Daily News 215-854-5880

ON THE LAWN at Independence National Historical Park, the white wooden "tombstones" stood at attention, the way the crosses do at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Yesterday, visitors stepped cautiously between the rows, as if on hallowed ground, looking for the name of a loved one on the 1,800 symbolic tombstones commemorating Veterans Day.

Temple University sophomore Kerry Brind'Amour, 19, was showing her sister Katie, 21, around Philadelphia, when, she said, they decided to see if a family friend, whom they had grown up with, was there.

They didn't have far to look. In the third row, they found the tombstone for Lance Cpl. Patrick Kenny, a Marine with the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Division.

Kenny died "when a land mine went off under his seat in a Humvee," said Kerry Brind'Amour, tears streaming down her face. Their families had been close in Pittsburgh, and Kenny's death two years ago in Iraq hit them hard. He was only 20.

Like other memorials that honor the war dead, even this four-day temporary one, to be taken down today, evoked tears, sadness and memories of lives struck down in their prime.

As mourners placed flowers by the tombstones, Bill Perry, executive director of Delaware Valley Veterans for America, played taps. His organization espouses bringing the troops home now.

Perry, 60, a combat paratrooper during the Tet offensive in 1967-1968 in Vietnam, said there were 3,860 American casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, as of yesterday morning.

Along the perimeter of the lawn were markers for 91 women who had died in combat. "I've never seen so many woman die in war," he said.

On Aug. 9, 2005, Sgt. Francis Straub Jr., of the Pennsylvania National Guard, was serving in Alpha Unit in Iraq when a massive blast killed the 24-year-old Philadelphian and three others.

Yesterday, his parents left two pink roses and a message on the white wooden board: "Love you forever, Mom and Dad."

"We remember you, Sam!" said another message left by a teacher on Friday from Mountain View High School in Tucson, Ariz. Pfc. Samantha Huff, 18, was killed in action on April 18, 2005.

Among the symbolic markers, 177 represented soldiers from Pennsylvania who died in combat, or from post-traumatic-stress syndrome, during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, said Jenny Hanniver, who made the tombstones.

The rest represented war dead from New Jersey, Delaware, Lower New York and upper Maryland, said Hanniver, a Navy lieutenant who served briefly in Vietnam.

Hanniver, 71, and retired Maj. Jon Bjornson, 75, a flight surgeon who served in Vietnam, offered carnations and roses to those who wanted to put flowers by the symbolic graves.

"We don't sell them, but if someone wants to make a donation . . . ," said Hanniver.

Volunteers will help Perry load the symbolic tombstones in a truck so he can store them in the backyard of his Levittown home, until the next holiday to honor the war dead. *