March 20, 2005 9:00 p.m.
Fernando Suarez del Solar points to his dead son’s dirty
combat boots and recalls the life of the young soldier, who died at
age 20 two years ago. His only son, Jesus, wanted to be a police
officer, liked to rough house with his dad, and watched “The
Simpsons” obsessively while growing up in his home in
To many, he’d seem like an “ordinary boy,”
Suarez del Solar said, but “for me, he was the
Lance Corporal Jesus Suarez del Solar of the U.S. Marine Corps
was one of first casualties of the war in Iraq, and his empty boots
stood among hundreds of others put on display at the Westwood
United Methodist Church Saturday to commemorate the second
anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
The “Eyes Wide Open” exhibit, coordinated by the
pacifist Quaker organization American Friends Service Committee,
has been featured in nearly 50 cities across the nation, and
displayed in landmark locations like New York City’s Central
The exhibit was first unveiled in January 2004 in Chicago with a
display of 504 boots ““ the number of U.S. soldiers who had
died in Iraq at the time. The exhibit grows with the number of
casualties and currently includes over 1,500 combat boots. The
exhibit also features a wall of civilian shoes to symbolize fallen
Iraqi civilians since the war’s onset. While an exact number
has not been recorded, the number ranges from 17,000 to nearly
19,500, according to the Web site www.iraqbodycount.net.
Due to the rainfall Saturday, the exhibit was moved from its
scheduled outdoor location at the Westwood Federal Building to an
indoor church auditorium on Wilshire Boulevard, about two miles
from the UCLA campus. All of the 1,500 boots were not displayed due
to space constraints, the event’s organizers said.
Though only about 200 boots were displayed Saturday, the impact
of the exhibit was apparent on the many who weaved through the maze
of dirty footwear, adorned by pictures, prayers, flowers and flags.
Some boots, off of which hung identification tags, are donated by
the families of dead soldiers, but most are purchased from military
Sgt. Rudy Reyes, a marine from the First Reconnaissance
Battalion, was among the visitors to the exhibit last weekend.
Picking up a pair of boots and reading the tag, he explained to
another attendee what the shoes were meant to symbolize. Reyes had
returned from Iraq in October 2004.
“I’m looking for my buddy,” he was overheard
saying. He later explained that he was looking for the pair of
boots representing First Sgt. Edward Smith, who had been a role
model to Reyes. Smith was 38 when he died from wounds incurred from
mortar fire in central Iraq a few weeks after the war began.
While coordinators said the exhibit aims to illustrate the human
cost of war, the day’s events attracted a diversity of
opinions. There were committee officials who believed U.S. troops
should pull out from Iraq immediately, countered by former soldiers
who said civil war might ensue. Meanwhile, local residents
questioned whether the event’s anti-war sentiment could be
justified when the recent Iraqi elections seemed to be a
Past exhibitions have also caused tension among family members
of dead soldiers, uncomfortable with their loved ones being on
display, according to several community newspapers.
But, Suarez del Solar uses the exhibit as an opportunity to keep
his son’s memory alive. He has spoken at several “Eyes
Wide Open” exhibits and gathered support for his own charity
organization, which collects medical supplies for Iraqi children
and provides psychological services for Chicano families that have
loved ones serving in Iraq.
His family immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1997.
After his son’s death, he quit his job at a 7-11 convenience
store to speak out on behalf of Jesus. Jesus is survived by his
wife and 3-year-old son, Erik. Jesus was deployed when Erik was a
Suarez del Solar said he grieves through the work he does but
that Jesus’ mother and three sisters grieve differently.
“My wife began to cry. Two years later, my wife continues
to cry,” he said Saturday, to a crowd of less than a 100
seated in front of the boots display.
Suarez del Solar has vehemently spoken out against the war and
the Bush administration in the last two years.
He had reportedly been kicked out of the Republican National
Convention this summer for holding a sign that read, “Bush
Lies, My son dies.”
He also traveled to Iraq twice since the death of Jesus.
The first time, he placed a cross where his son had reportedly
died stepping on U.S. military cluster bomblet in Southern Baghdad.
Then he visited a children’s hospital and watched two
children die of malnutrition in his arms, he said as his eyes
filled with tears and his thick-accented speech broke with
The second time, he went back to the same hospital with $600,000
worth of medical supplies collected through donations, he said,
adding that he is following his son’s life example.
“My son shows me a beautiful example for love,” he
said. “He put his life on the (line) for other
In addition to Suarez del Solar, a panel of speakers relayed
their experiences with the war.
Aidan Delgado, a Florida college student who was stationed in
the Abu Ghraib prison and later obtained conscientious objector
status, said he owes his fellow soldiers for their sacrifices.
“I’m wearing my combat boots today. … I’m
still walking in them,” he said.
Delgado later said attending the event was the last thing he
wanted to do on the war’s anniversary.
After speaking about his experiences he said, “I hate
doing this all the time and (reopening) myself to it all the time
… but, I have to.”
Though he did not agree with all of the speakers at the event,
Reyes said he believed the exhibit was constructive.
Still, he believes education is the only way to improve the
situation in Iraq.
A majority of the American people don’t realize the
day-to-day struggle of the average Iraqi civilian, many of whom
live in poverty conditions according to U.S. standards, he
There are “not a whole lot of facts” available about
Iraq, Reyes said, making it difficult for Americans to fully grasp
The day ended with politicians, local actresses and musicians
who expressed frustration over the war through art.
As somber music played in the background and the crowd slowly
dispersed, the sun cracked through the day’s rain clouds and
seeped into the church auditorium. Soldiers, veterans, students and
organizers hovered over the combat boots and civilian shoes, now
covered in a blanket of sunshine.
Ryan Enos, a UCLA graduate student in political science who
volunteered to help with the exhibit, said he wished more people
from the UCLA community had attended the event.
Enos has a brother currently serving in Iraq. He had talked to
him Saturday, but the fact that the day was the war’s
anniversary hadn’t come up in the conversation.
“I have better things to talk to him about,” he