I served as the National Tour Manager for Eyes Wide Open for about three years, taking the exhibit to over 90 venues. Thousands of people visited the exhibit, including volunteers, veterans, Gold and Blue Star families and friends of service members, as well as protesters who supported the war in Iraq and disapproved of our attempt to point out the human cost of (any) war. When we began, the nation was divided about the war. Sixty percent were in favor and 40 percent opposed. By the time the tour ended, those numbers had flipped. I would like to think that we played a part in this turn-around.
I had the opportunity to meet many incredible people while participating with EWO. There isn’t a single day without at least one specific memory, like the time on Union Square in New York when we were setting up the boots and a woman walked through on her way to the farmer’s market on the opposite side of the square. She asked what we doing and then proceeded to run her errands. On her way home, all the boots we had at the time were on display and the exhibit was open. As she passed through the rows of boots, suddenly she stopped and dropped to her knees. She had stumbled across her son’s boots, as if drawn to them that morning. Until that morning, she had no idea or knowledge about the exhibit.
Another time, we were in Ohio and a young mother and her two children came to visit. The younger child was just a few months old. She had come to find the boots of her husband--the child’s father. The mother was pregnant when he was killed. They spent a couple hours, sitting on the grass with his boots for this family reunion.
In Dallas, Texas, we displayed the boots at the city hall. This venue was large enough to also accommodate a nice layout for the many Iraqi civilian shoes that further helped people visualize the human cost of war. Among those visiting that day, were 50 or 60 pro-war supporters who took offence, not only for the exhibit itself, but in particular for the display of the Iraqi shoes. The majority of these protesters were Vietnam Veteran bikers. As the day went on, they became more hostile and took efforts to walk on the civilian-shoe part of the exhibit. At one point, one of their more vocal members was in my personal space. It was then that I extended my hand to shake his and uttered the words, “Welcome home, brother.” He immediately recognized me as a fellow Vietnam Veteran and without a moment's hesitation, returned my handshake. We then began a dialogue with others joining in and before long, they quietly departed.
My experiences working with EWO will carry with me for the rest of my life. The friends I made and the people I met will always be remembered. The work we did was important and the vision of Michael McConnell, who created this exhibit, will always be a part of this great man's legacy. He is terribly missed.