Courtesty of Gainesville Sun
Richard Hudgens wipes a tear from his eye as he stands in front of a booth along Northwest Eighth Avenue on Saturday afternoon.
He's wearing an American flag pin, and one given to him by the federal government.
He was enlisted in the Army in 1968 during the Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War.
Now, his job is to protect the 6,789 tombstones that make up the "Memorial Mile," a mile of tombstones that symbolizes all the lives lost among service members during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He is in one of the two tents set up to help the public find their loved ones among the thousands of tombstones.
"I should be used to this," he said.
Hudgens is a member of the Veterans for Peace Gainesville chapter, the organization behind the Memorial Mile.
A retired worker from the VA, the Army veteran said he has been working with the Memorial Mile for the past eight years.
On Saturday, the first day of the Memorial Mile, which will remain on display until Monday evening at 7, Hudgens helped a woman locate the tombstone of her fiance, who died in Iraq in 2011.
She thanked Veterans for Peace for doing all this. It really means a lot, she said.
The cause of the tear in Hudgens' eye? He sees this stuff all the time. But it still doesn't get any easier.
"We got people who come by and put flowers here," he said. "And talk about brothers. And, this beautiful young woman just comes by …"
Hudgens said he deliberately sought out a job with the VA when he left the Army because all he wanted to do was help his fellow veterans.
Now, he helps Veterans for Peace by joining 74 other volunteers in creating the Memorial Mile, which has been on display on Northwest Eighth Avenue every Memorial Day since 2007. He has helped out with the tombstones every year for the past eight years.
"I've seen people walking among the tombstones with tears coming down their face," he said. "Someone even put a beer bottle at a tomb."
People write down their memories and leave items at the tombstones.
Veterans for Peace keeps track of all these things, Hudgens said.
Those veterans who have a local connection have a flag sticking out of the top of their tombstone. There are 335 of these.
"The Mile brings something to Gainesville to help remember these veterans," Hudgens said, smiling. "We are helping people realize what the cost is in human lives."
Gainesville's Scott Camil, the founder of Veterans for Peace's Gainesville chapter and a former sergeant in the Marine Corps, started the Memorial Mile, which he now says is his mission every year.
What is on display from Saturday morning at dawn until Monday at 7 p.m. requires months and months of planning, he said.
A permit from the city to use Northwest Eighth Avenue is requested every February, he said. "It was the best location." The long mile stretch, he said, keeps people viewing the display down the road.
"There's no turning their face around from it.They have to see it," Camil said.
Camil, 68, started the Veterans for Peace Gainesville chapter in 1987. This year, they added 96 more tombstones to the Mile.
Seven members of the armed forces have died since March, he said.
"I was making tombstones on my birthday," he said, explaining how he spent this past Monday organizing.
The tombstones are made out of coroplast, a kind of durable plastic, and made with waterproof labels, he said. They are placed in chronological order first by war and then by date of death.
"And I do it all from right here," he said, smiling as he dictated the set-up at 11 p.m. Friday night.
"Tonight's the night," he said, his long, gray hair pulled back into a ponytail. The volunteers for the separate teams began to arrive.
The teams all have designated times and duties throughout the night, he said. The teams set up the flags and use a marker to arrange the tombstones by year and by country.
And until Monday, there will be shifts to man and protect the tombstones.
"We've had a lot of vandalism in the past", Camil said. "People rode up along the side of the road and ran over the line of tombs."
"If we catch them, they're screwed," Camil said.
He knows the Mile requires a lot of work for volunteers. Yet, "I have them thanking me for allowing them to be a part of it," Camil said. "They're doing it because they believe in it," he said, as he takes his radio out to contact people about the status of arranging the tombs.
Bosch Rogers, a Navy veteran from Ocala, came to help in the effort for the first time Friday night.
"This is a physical presence of the sacrifices that are made," she said. "Having taught around here for so many years, I wouldn't be surprised if I saw people I know."
Her friend, Pam Escarcega of Ocala, came out to help, as well.
"I was really moved by the YouTube videos on Facebook," she said. "This is a very powerful representation of the people who were lost."
Across from the tombstones, a sister organization hangs up individually hand-sewn quilts 3 feet wide by 2 feet high. The quilts are made by loved ones of those represented on the tombstones, and they carry personal messages, said Jackie Betz, local and national coordinator of the Peace Ribbon project.
"You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake," Betz said as she hands out her free pink lemonade and explains that the quilts give a more personal message of the lives shattered due to the war.
Camil said that it is important for the public to see these messages.
"The messages that people have written on the tombstones to the loved ones will really break you up," he said.
Camil spent 20 months in Vietnam, earning two Purple Hearts. His Purple Hearts were awarded for being wounded by a grenade and by a mine.
"When veterans talk about war, the public listens to them," he said. "We are in a unique position to make a statement."
Gainesville native Ortho Matheny, 71, came out Saturday afternoon after the display was ready. "Hoorah!" he said as he rolled down his window.
His mission — to deliver strawberries and cookies to the volunteers.
A Navy veteran and a member of Veterans for Peace, Matheny said there's five words to live by.
"Peace, love, understanding, hope and tolerance. If we all lived by those five words, oh, what a wonderful world it would be," Matheny said, smiling.