On October 13, 2021, Rebecca Fellows adhered photographs of the thirteen service members killed outside the Kabul Airport in August to the wall at the Connecticut National Guard’s Gov. William A. O’Neill Armory in Hartford, Connecticut.
The placement of these images marked the conclusion of a project she started fourteen years ago to enshrine every Soldier, Sailor, Airmen, and Marine who fell in the line of duty serving in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the Global War on Terror.
As a military spouse of more than 30 years, Rebecca is well-versed in the sacrifice service members and their families make for their country. However, despite the fact she knows every Soldier understands the inherent risk of going into combat, nothing could truly prepare her, or her family, for the number of familiar faces they’d see in the news during the early years of the war.
According to Fellows, many of the cadets her family had become acquainted with during her husband’s final duty assignment at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point would go on to serve in the Middle East and, unfortunately, many wouldn’t make it home. As the war continued to drag on, more and more people she knew would be called forward to serve, including her son-in-law, who was an Apache pilot and would end up losing some close friends when their helicopter – another craft in his formation – was shot down during a mission.
In 2007, the emotional toll of the war hit its breaking point when their good friend and neighbor, while stationed at West Point, died when a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter he was on was shot down on its way to a dedication ceremony for a hospital U.S. forces had built for the Iraqi people.
“As an artist, I think I felt I needed to just do something, I needed to express something,” said Fellows. “So, literally that night I went to bed and when I woke up the next morning, I knew exactly what I was going to do.”
The next day, she started the Fallen Flags Project, an American Flag made of small red, white, and blue vitreous enamel frames, each with the face of a Service Member who perished in the war. Her reason for starting the project was two-fold. First, it was to honor the men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice and offer some kind of comfort to their families, but it was also to try and bring awareness about those who’d died to the American public.
“I had this feeling that this was a group of people that Americans, as a whole, weren’t really embracing what was happening to them,” said Fellows. “I think that the Soldiers and service people who served in these wars was a smaller population [than previous wars] and you hear stories of them being deployed six times and I just felt like most of America was just sort of like ‘oh yeah, that’s too bad,’ but it didn’t really effect their lives too much.”
The project consists of six flags, plus a miniature plaque with the final thirteen casualties, displaying portraits of all 7,054 service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the original concept of the project looked much different with smaller frames and pictures, and no particular order for the images.
As part of her effort to get this project in front of the public, she worked with the office of Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who represents Connecticut’s Third District, to get the project on display in the New Haven city hall. It was during this time that she had an encounter with a woman that would change the trajectory of the project.
“There was a young woman there and she was just standing there and crying,” Fellows said. “I said, ‘are you all right?’ and she said ‘I’m trying to find my friend. He’s up here. He was killed. I can’t find him.’ She was so distraught and I realized that while my concept wasn’t a bad one, it just wasn’t done well enough.”
So, she went back to the drawing board. In the end, she decided to make the frames and photos larger so they were easier to see and organized the portraits in order based off the date of their death. Next to the display in Hartford, there’s also a book case with several binders that helps people find their loved ones on the flag more easily.
“This project was a very difficult one,” said Fellows. “It was physically difficult because it was big – while putting it together I actually damaged my thumb and had to have surgery – but it was also emotionally extremely demanding because, I think, after being a military spouse for all these years and living my life in a PX and a commissary and seeing young Soldiers and getting to know them, every face I would look at and that I would put into a frame took a little bit out of me.”
An additional complication that made this project difficult was the acquisition of the service member’s photographs. Fellows said that despite the project now being complete, she almost had to abandon it.
“When I got started, there was such a wealth, unfortunately, of photos and Soldiers to be honored. So for the first ten months to a year, I worked day into evening to the point where my family was a little concerned about me because this became such a passion, and I guess you could say an obsession for me.
“I originally started getting the [images] from the New York Times. They used to post them every day and then they stopped. I talked to a reporter there and he said ‘we just didn’t have the manpower to keep up with it.’ So, all of a sudden, I’d started this project and now I don’t have any photos.”
With the threat of the project failing, she set out to find a new source of images and stumbled upon the website zeitlangers.com, which was created and maintained by a gentleman who had a simple and similar goal to that Fellows: honor those who gave their lived in service to their country.
On this website, this gentleman has aggregated data from across the web, to create an inclusive list of everyone who has died in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom and organized it by date of death, home state, and alphabetically. When Fellows emailed him about her predicament, he was more than happy to share any information he had to help complete the Fallen Flags Project.
Now, with the final thirteen casualties from Afghanistan immortalized on the flag, she says the project is finished, but acknowledges the fight against terrorism is still ongoing.
She had to set a specific goal when she started, she said. “I chose those two wars because I had a real close connection with both of them. My son-in-law served in both Iraq. Unfortunately, a similar project could be started for other placed in the world, too … in the long term, I’m so glad I did it and I hope people will continue to get comfort from it.”