One by one, the items were stacked.
First, a pair of beige combat boots were set down. Next, a black rifle, barrel down, was placed upright into one of the boots. A small American flag stuck out of the other.
A desert camo combat helmet was hung on top of the rifle’s butt. A dog tag was draped across the magazine. And last, a red rose rested at the bottom.
The symbol of the battlefield cross was constructed in a ceremony Monday afternoon at Wise County Veterans Park in Decatur for Sgt. Robert J. Billings. The 30-year-old from Amarillo died Oct. 30, 2012, while serving in Afghanistan after his unit was attacked by an improvised explosive device.
His wife, Hope Billings, approached the makeshift monument. Tears formed behind sunglasses, not visible until they streamed down her cheeks.
The only sound was the gentle flutter of U.S. and Texas flags. A sparrow hawk glided over the scene as the shadow of the battlefield cross grew long in the sun, spreading over concrete and brick like a dark ghost.
“There are still 10 to 30 American soldiers killed every month in combat,” said Archie Sharp. “But this war has been going on so long, it’s become a forgotten war.
“The families with someone over there still know it’s going on – they deal with it every day. But the general public has almost forgotten.”
Started in 2001, the war in Afghanistan, which took the life of Billings, has lasted almost 12 years. By comparison, U.S. involvement in the Revolutionary War lasted 8.4, the Civil War for four years, World War II for 3.7 years and World War I for 1.6 years.
The war in Afghanistan has claimed the lives of 2,246 U.S. soldiers.
Sharp is part of an organization based out of Childress called Iron Soldiers. They formed in 2007.
“Our goal is to make sure that soldiers who have died are not forgotten,” Sharp said.
They stopped in Decatur late Monday afternoon to hold the battlefield cross ceremony before making a memorial run downtown. They carried a baton in the run that symbolized every Texan killed in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On Sharp’s right forearm is a tattoo of the battlefield cross. He got it made after losing a friend and fellow soldier in the U.S. Army while serving in Afghanistan.
Just as the tattoo makes sure he never forgets his friend, the tours of the Iron Soldiers through Texas remind even more of the sacrifices made.
“Without God the world would not exist,” Sharp said. “Without families, we would not exist. And without soldiers, America would not exist. On July 4th, make sure these soldiers are remembered.”
The Wise County Veterans Group and North Texas Honor Guard also joined the Iron Soldiers in the ceremony held at the park Monday.