FORT BRAGG, N.C. (FOX 13) - A memorial dedicated to soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq used 7,000 boots to display the service and sacrifice of those who protect our freedom.
The display took over a recreation field at Fort Bragg over the weekend and one man made it his mission to bring together families who could not be there in person with the boots honoring their loved ones.
The annual display was started three years ago by Survivor Outreach Services or SOS. Retired Army veteran, and now an employee at Fort Bragg, Mike Thomas replied to SOS's call three years ago for combat boot donations.
Thomas had the idea to seek out individual soldiers' place in the display after he saw a similar outreach on the Arlington National Cemetery's Facebook page. So last year, Thomas made a post offering to take a photo of any individual boot and send it to the soldier's family. Thomas said he did not get a huge response but was happy to seek out the soldiers for the few individuals who responded.
This year, however, the response was much different. He posted photos and video of the display, which was set up Friday, May 19, and it quickly gained more than 50,000 shares. Requests began to pour in - along with thousands of comments thanking him for sharing the display online.
So Thomas got to work seeking out each soldier to take a photo of the boot representing their sacrifices. Thomas said he also read about each soldier's death on the Department of Defense's website.
Thomas said he continued to get requests after the display was taken down. He hopes he can fulfill everyone's request in time next year.
Boots in the display are arranged in order of the soldiers' month and year of death. Thomas documented at least 50 from this year's display. Among those who contacted him for a photo of their loved one's boot is the family of 1st Lieutenant Weston C. Lee, a decorated U.S. Army paratrooper killed while fighting ISIS April 29, 2017. His boot was the last in the display, representing the most recent death of a soldier in the war-torn Middle East.
Thomas also sought out the boots of Lt. Brendan Looney and Marine 1st Lt. Travis L. Manion, roommates at the United States Naval Academy who later died in separate incidents during the line of duty, and now rest side-by-side in Arlington National Cemetery. Thomas said his son, who is soon to enroll in the Academy, is reading a book about Lt. Looney and Lt. Manion called "Brothers Forever" and he was touched by their story. Although they died at different times, Thomas placed their boots together for a photo to send to their families.
Thomas said he is glad to see so many people were interested in seeing his photos and video of the display, noting, "They will be never forgotten as long as we speak their names and honor their lives."