Former Marine Brandon Blackstone of Arlington, Texas is accustomed to the double take people do when he says that this Veterans Day he wants their help reading aloud the names of U.S. servicemen and women killed in wars.
Not just in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Not back to Vietnam.
Not since World War I.
All of them.
It sounds like an enormous undertaking and, well, it is. Blackstone and a group of other Marines are gathering more than 1 million names of fallen service people since the Revolutionary War to be recited.
To pull it off, they need about 600 locations nationwide where volunteers can split up the names to honor everyone who has died for this country, they say.
"It's definitely a monumental task," said Blackstone, 31. "But all you need is a podium, a microphone, a bell and an American flag. This has never been done before that we know of, but we're going to do it."
Blackstone is a member of The Fight Continues, a group of Marines whose mission is to educate the public on sacrifices made by military families. Blackstone, who was born in Fort Worth and grew up in Arlington, was a rent-to-own store manager before 9-11.
The attacks motivated him to join the Marines. In 2004, while deployed in Husaybah, Iraq, Blackstone was severely injured when his Humvee struck an anti-tank mine. The explosion ruptured his appendix and he underwent multiple knee surgeries and an ankle reconstruction. He also suffered a frontal lobe injury that causes seizures.
He met the other Marines in The Fight Continues at the Midwest Marines Foundation in St. Louis, which helps wounded, ill and injured Marines and corpsmen returning from war transition back into civilian life.
Eric Calley, a Marine from Michigan and a member of the group, said the idea for the Veterans Day project is to honor those who served before them. This Nov. 12 will be the first Veterans Day since the Iraq war ended, he noted.
"We are the next generation going forward and it's time for us to give back," Blackstone said.
Not easily done
Making the plan work is no easy feat. Not only do organizers have to gather the names of the fallen service people, but they also have to find enough locations and volunteers to recite them all.
Mike LeBlanc, who works at the Midwest Marine Foundation, is gathering the names. He said the group has contacted the Defense Department and historical societies that have caches of names.
The goal is to acquire as many names as possible or "as far back as history allows us," Calley said.
So far, the logistics of sharing the names has been as big a challenge as finding them, he said.
"We're still figuring out what kind of files we can get and how exactly do we get them," LeBlanc said. "If someone has 1,800 names to get to us, what's the best way for that to happen? We're not sure yet."
In January, the same concept was executed on a much smaller scale at a large welcome home parade for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, he said. Volunteers recited names of all 6,502 soldiers killed in those wars. After each name was read, a bell tolled.
The service took about 12 hours.
"Of course, this project is on a much larger scale so that's why we need the help," LeBlanc said.
Need for help
Organizers are reaching out to universities, schools, Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, American Legion, even small businesses to host the readings. If they can find 600 locations, volunteers at each could each handle about 1,750 names, they estimate.
If they read about eight names per minute, each reading should take three to four hours, Blackstone said.
On The Fight Continues website, organizers have posted locations that have already confirmed. Farleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey and George Mason University near Washington, D.C., are the most recent.
Blackstone said he is in charge of finding locations in North Texas and he hopes more people will join the effort. Organizers have confirmed about 100 locations, a pace that needs to pick up before Nov. 12.
"This is a chance to recognize everyone who has ever given their life for their country," Blackstone said. "We hope people will get behind it."