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Monday, April 15, 2024

Honoring the Fallen: Memorial Mile held for 9th, possibly final, time


Scott Camil spent most of his Memorial Day weekend on Northwest Eighth Avenue just like he has since 2007.

Camil, a Vietnam War veteran, and the Gainesville chapter of Veterans for Peace held the ninth annual Memorial Mile this weekend, which lasted from Saturday morning until Monday night.

Camil, the president and founder of the chapter, stayed up through the night Friday setting up 6,728 cardboard tombstones — each representing a U.S. soldier who died in Afghanistan since 2001 and Iraq since 2003 — along with other members to prepare for the event’s start Saturday morning.

The tombstones, standing in rows of four on the grass patch adjacent to the sidewalk that holds the Solar System Walk, spanned nearly 3/4 of a mile from Northwest 34th Street to Northwest 23rd Street on Eighth Avenue, filling the entire grass strip on the south side of the street and taking up another third of the north side.

But after lining up these miniature monuments for nine consecutive Memorial Day weekends, giving Gainesville residents an opportunity to reflect and see a visual representation of the wars’ impact, the project might have had its last run. The grass strips where the tombstones have been placed are scheduled to be removed.

Camil said the group is still looking to relocate the Memorial Mile to another place, a place that will give the project a similar amount of visibility, but they’ve had no luck so far.

•   •   •

Camil, 69, said he came up with the idea for the Memorial Mile, which started in 2007, after watching the movie “Arlington West.”

The documentary showed temporary tombstones placed on the beaches in California.

“Public response was overwhelming,” Camil said. “So I thought, ‘Wow. We can do that here.’”

And after a couple rough years early on, Camil said the group has received nothing but support from the Gainesville community.

People walk past the lines of tombstones, somber at the sheer number that is present.

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Some cars drive slowly, soaking in the moment.

Others honk with support whenever they see one of the volunteers.

“The first couple of years, we got mostly the finger from people riding by,” Camil said. “Now, we’re 100-percent accepted, like we haven’t had anything negative.”

•   •   •

From a distance, the tombstones look the same: white, neat, organized.

But as you get closer, each becomes distinct, individual, one-of-a-kind.

Each tombstone — all 6,728 of them — has a name.

Typed in small black font on a piece of cloth is the soldier’s name, date of death, age, branch of service, rank and hometown.

They are organized chronologically, spanning west to east along Eighth Avenue, and then separated by war.

“We want to remind people and each other about the cost of war,” said Paul Ortiz, the media coordinator for the Gainesville chapter of Veterans for Peace and a UF associate professor of history. “Equally important, we want to commemorate and remember the sacrifices that people have made.”

Visitors leave their marks, too.

Some write notes on the bottom. 

Others left bouquets of flowers at headstones.

One wrote to her big brother that she misses him and let him know his son knows how much he loves him.

“It gives people kind of a quiet time to think,” Ortiz said.

And the group of 75 members and volunteers made sure to help Memorial Mile visitors in whatever way they could.

For the nearly 60 hours the Memorial Mile stood this weekend — from 6 a.m. Saturday until 5 p.m. Monday — at least six people were present along the strip at all times.

“We all take shifts,” said Greg Mullaley, one of the volunteers.

Veterans for Peace had three tents posted up, one at each end of the tombstone strip and one in the middle, with at least two chapter members or volunteers present at all times.

While on the clock, the volunteers help passersby and visitors to the event in multiple ways, from giving basic information to helping them find specific tombstones using an index. 

Others were responsible for making sure tombstones stay upright, patrolling the 3/4-mile strips for any markings that were knocked over by the wind or passing cars.

“There’s a lot of planning and work that goes into this,” Camil said.

•   •   •

At about 4 p.m. Monday, Camil and other Gainesville Veterans for Peace members began picking up the tombstones for perhaps the last time.

With the strips of grass on Eighth Avenue slated for removal, the Veterans for Peace will not be able to continue holding the event there.

The group is still surveying their options, searching for a potential goldmine where they can host their annual event in the future, Camil said.

And so far, despite recommendations from people in the city government, county government and local residents, there’s been no luck.

Camil said the new location, wherever it may be, needs to fit the group’s parameters, which include a grass strip that’s a minimum of a half-mile long with a curb on both sides of the street, no driveways and access to parking and bathrooms.

“If we don’t have a place that meets our parameters,” Camil said, “we’re done.”

Right now, it’s looking like the Memorial Mile will just be a memory come 2016. 

But Ortiz wants to make sure the event’s memory lives on.

He said the oral history program at UF is hoping to use images and testimonies from members to create a documentary about the Memorial Mile for Memorial Day weekend next year.

“Even if we can’t have the event in the future,” Ortiz said, “we can at least have a UF-produced documentary about it.”

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