On Sept. 11, 2001, the United States suffered the tragic loss of thousands of citizens during the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. But following the disaster, in a display of unity and patriotism, American flags started appearing on homes, cars, businesses, street corners and seemingly every place available in the country.
The flag had become a symbol of healing, and the American people embraced it wholeheartedly.
"[Osama] bin Laden thought he would change the face of America that day -- and he has," says Lori Oakason, executive national director for the Healing Field non-profit organization. "There have never been so many flags flying in America."
As the first anniversary of the 9/11 disaster approached, Paul Swenson, the owner of Colonial Flag, wanted to do something to help the country heal. He decided to display 3,000 American flags, one for each American killed in the tragedy, to help people remember the lives lost on that terrible day.
Swenson contacted the leaders of Sandy City to see if he could use the three-and-a-half acres of land by the Sandy City Hall. They agreed and on Sept. 10, 2002, Swenson, Oakason and about 50 volunteers showed up to set up the 3,000 flags.
Reporters from local television stations were there to cover the process, and the news at 6 p.m. showed the effort of the Colonial Flag volunteers. Following the newscast, residents began showing up to help; soon 500 people were on hand to assemble and place the flags.
"I think people really wanted to do something that day," Oakason says. "They didn't just want to watch the news footage on the TV, they needed to do something meaningful."
Soon, calls were coming in to Colonial Flag asking for information about the program and wanting to know how communities could plan their own Healing Field projects. Oakason was asked to direct the program, and since that time almost 160 Healing Fields have been held all over the United States.
But the Healing Fields aren't always held in remembrance of 9/11. Organizations around the country have embraced the program as a way to bring awareness to their cause. Because Swenson doesn't want to make money off tragedy, the flags are supplied to communities at wholesale prices, and Colonial Flag makes an additional $1 per flag donation toward whatever program the Healing Field stands for.
Healing Field displays have been used to inform others of the deaths caused by underage drinking. It has also been used to demonstrate the number of lives lost in the war in Iraq. And in West Jordan, the Healing Field project was used to remember the 1,400 children in America killed from child abuse during the last five years.
The West Jordan, Taylorsville and Murray City Exchange Clubs organized the event and added 31 blue ribbon flags to recognize the deaths of 31 Utah children due to child abuse. Renee Sorensen was a coordinator for the project.
"We want people to be aware that this is going on in our communities," she says. "When you come and look at the number of flags and realize what it represents, it really brings it home."
This is the third year the Exchange Clubs have utilized the Healing Field in regard to child abuse, and Sorensen says that the display is a very poignant reminder of the hundreds of children who will never grow up, never be parents and never fulfill their dreams.
She adds that following the event last year, a young mother came up to her and said that one of the flags displayed represented her 4-year-old son who was killed by her boyfriend. Sorensen says the mother thanked her for remembering her son and not allowing his death to be forgotten.
"It's just a great display," Sorensen says. "There's something about those flags that touches your soul."
Although the Healing Fields are frequently used as memorials, they can also be used in celebration or as an honor for members of the armed forces. In San Diego, the Association of the United States Army displayed the flags on a field of honor at the newest national cemetery. The theme of the program was to honor heroes -- not only military heroes, but also the people who make a difference in a person's life.
"Throughout our lives we all have had very special people who have touched our lives and left a permanent imprint in our hearts," says Jan Wall, chairman of the AUSA Healing Field committee. "This person has perhaps given you strength when you needed it most, love when you thought you could not, hope when you thought there was none, tears when you thought they were dry, laughter when you needed to hear it or perhaps all of these things and more.It is to this person we hope you will honor on this Field of Honor."
This year on Veterans' Day, the state of Maine will hold the first statewide Veterans' Day Healing Field memorial. Sponsored by the Sons of the American Legion, 25,000 flags will be displayed to honor all the military veterans in the state of Maine.
"Each town will have flags for their veterans," Oakason says. "The flags will be placed along the roads and byways, and people can travel through the state to see all the displays."
The Healing Fields has now gone international with displays in Mexico bringing awareness to deaths of young women caused by illegal abortions. And Canadian flags will fly at an event organized by hockey star Wayne Gretzky's father Walter to benefit the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
A complete listing of Healing Field events can be found at www.healingfield.org.
"I don't think we ever had a clue that it would become what it has," Oakason says. "The American flag can heal a lot of wounds, and it does all over America."
She encourages everyone to visit a memorial this year, and she can almost guarantee that visitors will not leave without a spirit of healing and reverence. Oakason attributes it all to the life-giving power of the American flag. n