Touring war exhibition making a stop in patriotic Nevada town

You won’t find a more patriotic Nevada town than Hawthorne.

Home to the Hawthorne U.S. Army Depot and U.S. Navy submarine training facility, the town’s history and economy are interwoven with the military presence in Mineral County. And in 2013, eight Marines were killed during a training exercise not far from town, which went into a state of mourning over the loss.

Hawthorne takes great collective pride in its weeklong Armed Forces Day Celebration, which began Monday, and with help from service organizations and even the local Cub Scout pack spruces itself up for visitors around this time each year.

There are parades and barbecues planned, and there will be no shortage of flag waving and displays of military tradition. There’s a good reason the Hawthorne Chamber of Commerce calls the town “America’s Patriotic Home,” it’s hard to deny the fact.

Although some might call it controversial, I think it’s only fitting that Hawthorne also be the temporary home to the “Always Lost: A Meditation on War” national touring war exhibition. Sponsored by the Nevada Department of Veterans Services, the display holds the photographs and names of the approximately 7,000 U.S. military members who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The exhibit, which began as a class project in 2009 at Western Nevada College in Carson City, has been on the road across the country since 2010.

In Hawthorne, it is being hosted by American Legion Post 19 of Mineral County, a proud group whose members include retired service personnel from all branches of the military and several fields of battle.

One of them is the post’s leader, retired Marine James “Gunny” Utterback, who in a recent statement said he was excited to have the exhibit in the community in time for Armed Forces Day.

“In the past, we have had other tributes to our veterans from different eras, such as the traveling Vietnam memorial,” he recalled. “We now can honor service members and veterans of our current wars.”

The exhibit also provides a grim reminder that cuts right through all the parades and patriotic speeches to the reality of war.

Those thousands of faces, most of them young and full of promise, belong to the honored dead.

Nevada veterans services director Kat Miller sees the exhibit as a way to raise the issues military service personnel face both in and after active duty.

“I saw ‘Always Lost’ as a way to serve veterans by prompting a statewide conversation about veterans’ issues and to inspire a sense of collective responsibility and respect that drives workforce, educational, and wellness opportunities for veterans in Nevada,” Miller said in a statement.

The exhibition grew from the reaction Western Nevada sociology professor Don Carlson had in 2008 to a photo display of the faces of U.S. war dead in The New York Times. He was bothered by the idea that the ongoing battles might be part of “one of the most impersonal wars ever fought.”

Carlson contacted English professor Marilee Swirczek, and together the journey began. Retired Marine Maj. Kevin Burns, an English instructor, drew the name of the exhibit from a comment made by Gertrude Stein: “War is never fatal but always lost. Always Lost.”

The reality of the cost of war is often lost in annual patriotic celebrations that take place in small towns and big cities across the country. Many Hawthorne residents know all too well the terrible price that’s paid when fellow citizens go to battle.

Hawthorne, the Nevada town that always shows unflagging support for the military, does itself and the young servicemen and women a great honor by never forgetting that the cost of war is great and grim, indeed.

John L. Smith is a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Email him atjsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.

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