The shiny black combat boots Richard Griffin plans on wearing this Veterans’ Day have covered a lot of miles during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Thanks to the end of American combat operations in those nations, the 37-year-old homeless man will be the first person to have ever worn them.
Same holds true for a couple of hundred pairs of combat boots that were given away Sunday in Mill Creek Park. Like Griffin’s new footwear, they’ve been all over Missouri and Kansas as part of an anti-war exhibit called Eyes Wide Open.
Rows and rows of empty boots, tagged with the names of dead American service men and women, would be set out in parks, church halls and college campuses as a sober reminder that soldiers who march off to war all too often return home in flag-draped coffins.
More than 6,700 Americans, as well as countless Iraqis and Afghanis, have died since the United States committed troops to that part of the world after 9/11.
“We just wanted people to understand the human cost of war,” said Ira Harritt with the Kansas City chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, which sponsored Eyes Wide Open exhibits in all but a couple of states since the first staging in Chicago in January 2004.
But with the war in Iraq over and U.S. combat troops being pulled out of Afghanistan, Harritt said, it was time to put those boots to another use.
After one final Eyes Wide Open display Sunday afternoon in the park across from the Country Club Plaza, volunteers removed nametags from the boots and piled them, according to size, in 17 plastic tubs.
Anyone was free to take home a pair, but the giveaway was specifically aimed at the homeless.
Word about the boot giveaway, billed as “Turning Combat Boots into Ploughshares,” was circulated by area social service agencies.
Griffin had the handbill in his pocket when he claimed a pair of boots, size 12.
Also finding a pair of boots that fit well was Justin Peters, a 44-year-old housepainter who said he has a home, but little money for much of anything else.
“Food’s not something I regularly have,” he said, which was the main reason for his visit to the park. A hot meal.
“I come down here every week,” he said.
Harritt said he knew he’d get a good turnout for the boot giveaway by timing it to coincide with the Sunday dinner that Artists Helping the Homeless dishes out near the J.C. Nichols Fountain.
A few dozen people — men, for the most part — lined up for a plate of spaghetti and a big hunk of cheese cake served up by artist Kar Woo and other members of his group.
The Salvation Army was also there, handing out red string bags, each filled with a tooth brush, hand sanitizer and other toiletries.
Harritt said the backdrop underscored his group’s message, just as Eyes Wide Open was a comment on the price of war.
“Too much money is going to the Pentagon,” he said. “The whole idea of this today was to say too much money is being spent on the military when there are so many other needs.”
Whatever the symbolism, Griffin was glad to have the boots to take home to the motel room he was able to rent with money raised panhandling.
The shoes he had on Sunday were the wrong size and pinched his feet.
“And the shoes I had before this had holes in them,” he said.