Crosses mark war sacrifice

SALIDA -- The 2,600 white crosses march across the lawn, roughly 24 wide and 104 rows deep. They carry the names and ranks of military personnel killed in Iraq or Afghanistan along with the dates they died. Seven billboards carry thousands more names.

The crosses on the Modesto Christian School campus are arranged in chronological order, from the first cross nearest the gym out to Sisk Road and then on a tangent to the billboards.

The first cross belongs to Evander E. Andrews, an Air Force master sergeant, who was killed Oct. 10, 2001. The most recent death on the billboards is Jake R. Velloza, an Army specialist, killed May 2 in Iraq.

The names reveal many ethnic backgrounds -- Prince K. Tewia, Nainoa K. Hoe, Uday Singh, Thomas Rosenbaum, Ramon Mateo and Lance J. Koenig are a few.

Women are represented, too, including Amanda N. Pinson and Amy A. Duerkson, Army recruits killed in March 2006.

The crosses don't carry the hometowns or ages of the dead. But those bearing the names of the 27 fallen area soldiers and Marines were marked Friday with red, white and blue ribbons by Modesto Support Our Troops, a military support group.

Those victims include the first local casualties of the war, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Menusa, 33, of Tracy and Army Pfc. Karina S. Lau, 20, of Livingston, both of whom died in 2003, as well as the most recent death, Army Lt. Daniel Hyde, 24, of Modesto, who died March 7 in Iraq.

Twenty-five flags serve as sentries on the north side of the memorial, called "Freedom Isn't Free." Lights have been set up so the memorial can be seen 24 hours a day.

The display originated at an East Coast church in 2007 and has traveled to other locations. It was brought to Modesto by Neighborhood at River Ranch Church, which meets on the school campus it runs.

The memorial took more than 400 man-hours to set up and will remain on display through May 31.

"Memorial Day, especially for those in my generation, is something we take as a day off, time to hang out with family and have a barbecue," said Lance Lowell, 36, associate pastor at the church and who is overseeing the project. "That's not what it's all about. This brings the seriousness of Memorial Day into focus.

"We don't want to make a political statement at all. We just want to make a statement of those who paid the ultimate price and those who are still over there. I hope people will come and feel thankful and appreciate them."

Besides the memorial crosses, the church will hold its annual Memorial Weekend service at 10:45 a.m. May 24. It will feature a flag ceremony for fallen soldiers, bagpipes, recognition of local fire and law enforcement departments and other tributes. The families of military victims are invited as special guests, Lowell said.

The service will be followed by an afternoon of food, games, jump houses, water slides, bingo and a place to write a note of encouragement to a military person.

The school and church share the campus at 5755 Sisk Road in north Modesto. For more information about the memorial display or the May 24 activities, call 529-8900.

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or