Volunteers at Fort Bragg began early Friday, in a race against looming rain clouds.
They had their work cut out for them.
At Hedrick Stadium, soldiers and civilians carefully lined 7,263 boots on the athletic field. They placed a small American flag in each, then attached small tags with names, photographs and military units.
Seven thousand, two hundred sixty-three boots.
Each represents a service member lost since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Seven thousand, two hundred sixty-three lives lost.
Seven thousand, two hundred sixty-three fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters.
Standing at the edge of the Hedrick Stadium field, Charlotte Watson said it was an emotional display.
“I think the importance is not forgetting that we’ve lost all these men and women,” said Watson, program manager for Fort Bragg’s Survivor Outreach Services office.
But the display is also a promise. A promise to never forget.
“This is our opportunity to not only honor what we’ve lost but to honor the families that are still here,” Watson said. “I think it’s really important to never forget.”
This is the fourth year that Survivor Outreach Services has put up a boot display, which mimics similar displays that began at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and Fort Hood, Texas.
On Saturday, the boots will be the centerpiece of Fort Bragg’s Run, Honor, Remember 5k – a free race that is open to all Department of Defense cardholders and guests.
That race will begin with a ceremony at 7:30 a.m.
Watson said the boots will remain on display until Monday, when thousands of 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers will run around them as part of the Division Run to start All American Week at Fort Bragg.
On Friday, Watson said most of the boots were donated by veterans and family members.
They include boots from as far away as California, others that have been donated by fire and police departments across the state and at least one pair of spit-shined boots from a Vietnam veteran.
Each stand as their own memorial, Watson said.
In the few days that the boots are on display, thousands of people will visit them. They’ll wander through their midst. Or seek out a specific name.
The boots, separated by year, represent nearly 7,000 troops who have been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Watson said, and hundreds of troops who have died in noncombat incidents – accidents or disease – but have ties to North Carolina or Fort Bragg.
“A lot of people spend a lot of time here,” she said. “Families come here and reflect. They don’t always have a grave to visit nearby.”
Watson said more than 4,000 North Carolina families have lost a loved one. And her office touches each and every one in some way.
“Pray for them,” she said. “Put them in your thoughts.”
Military editor Drew Brooks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 486-3567.