With Each Fallen Soldier, a Field of Flags Grows
Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times
Caren Crootof updated the total on Thursday for her field of flags in Middle
Grove, N.Y., which honors American soldiers who have been killed in Iraq.
By FERNANDA SANTOS
Published: January 6, 2007
(must subscribe to NYT to view original article)
MIDDLE GROVE, N.Y., Jan. 4 — The flags are cut from rolls of yellow plastic
tablecloth, then woven onto thin wire rods. Each is about as long as a man’s
size 7 shoe, as wide as an outstretched hand.
They stand on a sloped corner field framed by a row of conifer trees in this
upstate hamlet, spreading in concentric circles like ripples on still water.
From afar, the flags look like clumsily painted dots, an amateur
installation of elusive meaning. A closer look yields a clue: a laminated
sign with bold black numbers that match the number of flags on the field,
numbers that climb almost by the day.
On Sunday, there were 3,000 yellow flags on the ground. By Thursday, five
“Just imagine if instead of flags, there were soldiers standing here,” Caren
Crootof said as she walked across the field, replacing flags torn or toppled
by rain and wind.
Mrs. Crootof, 54, makes the flags, cutting the plastic with scissors at her
kitchen table. She plants them most mornings before going to work as a
midwife, on the one-acre plot next to the 19th-century farmhouse where she
and her husband raised three children. First, she checks a Web site that
provides a daily tally of the number of American soldiers killed in the war
in Iraq. Then she takes to the field, updates the sign and plants the flags.
It started in July 2004, with 877 flags.
“We all grieved the losses of 9/11, we all shared the pain of those families
that lost loved ones in the attacks,” Mrs. Crootof said. “But here we were,
losing all this potential, losing heroes who threw their bodies on grenades
to save other troops, and I felt that we, as a nation, were doing so little
to acknowledge them.
“I just felt compelled to do something,” she added, “and this is what I
The field of flags is at once poignant and terrifying, plain yet powerful
for those who have taken notice in this out-of-the-way town of 2,300 in
northeastern New York State. The Crootofs’ field sits at the end of Middle
Line Road, which slices through a landscape of rolling hills, silos and
grazing cattle. It is just off Route 29, next door to Saratoga Springs.
One recent morning, a truck driver passing by flashed a thumbs-up sign to
Mrs. Crootof, who stood in the field like a dark speck on a yellow-gold sea.
A few minutes later, a van rolled past the field and its driver honked twice
as he steered around the bend.
Just as the van disappeared, Bruce Houser pulled up in a sport utility
vehicle and snapped a picture. He first spotted the flags some months ago,
while traveling the road on business, but drove back this week, 30 miles
from his home in Speigletown, to mark the milestone of 3,000 dead soldiers.
“These flags here, they’re a stark reminder of what the war really means,”
Mr. Houser said.
Ankie Meuwissen, 30, who lives opposite Mrs. Crootof, said people often
stopped and stared for a moment — mothers with children in tow, working men,
couples young and old.
“I don’t know if wonderful is the most appropriate word to describe it,” Ms.
Meuwissen said, “but it’s nice that somebody is doing something to remind us
what we’re giving up in this war.”
Last Memorial Day, Mrs. Crootof’s daughter, Rebecca, 25, heard taps being
played as she was eating breakfast on the sun porch. She stepped outside to
find a man playing the piece on a trumpet while standing atop a knoll
overlooking the field.
What started as a simple exercise in remembrance has become a vast daily
vigil for Mrs. Crootof, a self-professed leftist who has taken part in
boisterous antiwar protests in New York City and more subdued ones among her
She abhors the war, but sees the flags as nothing more than a heartfelt way
of honoring the troops and sharing the grief of their families.
It is a laborious, tedious task of bending, of burying the rods in the
ground. Mrs. Crootof often has help — from her children, who come home
during college breaks; from her aging parents, who live nearby; from friends
Her husband, Mark, a veterinarian, and their son, Aaron, 18, mow the field
in the warm months to keep the wild grass from obscuring the flags; a local
4-H club has offered to take on that task come spring. In the summer of
2005, nine girls from Girl Scout Troop 299 in Ballston Lake, about 15 miles
to the south, made 100 flags to replace tattered ones.
“The thing is, we all tend to just go along with our everyday life and
forget what’s going on in Iraq,” said Suzanne DeVito, the troop leader at
the time. “But when you look at this field and when you step on it and you
walk around it, the war becomes very real because you remember that it’s not
about bombs and tanks. It’s about people like you and I.”