NEWFANE -- As she has each July 4 since 2006, Lauri Richardson will spend this morning coordinating the installation of thousands of flags on Newfane Common - one for each U.S. casualty in the Iraq War.
But when those flags are removed in a few weeks, they won't be returning. Nearly seven months after the war officially ended, Richardson is retiring a display that has spurred a wide range of emotions and stories from volunteers and from passersby.
It also has been transformative for Richardson, a Williamsville resident who has no interest in taking too much credit for the exhibit.
"I feel absolutely fortunate to have been a part of this project," she said Tuesday. "I feel like it's been life-changing."
Richardson, who runs Avocado Design in Newfane with her husband, Glenn, said she started the flag project as an "acknowledgment" of those who had died in Iraq.
She is careful to say that the project never has been intended as a political statement. Instead, the field of flags has served as a sort of blank slate for visitors.
"In its simplicity, there's a lot of room for interpretation," Richardson said. "People's perspectives come from their personal experiences."
Because the display requires maintenance, and because Richardson handles that job, she often hears those perspectives firsthand.
"Inevitably, people stop, and they start talking," she said. "Many people have just been really honest.
Some of those thoughts have been recorded in an exhibit called "Reading Between the Lines." It consists of mosaic American flags with white stripes bearing words from those who visited the flag memorial.
Some are defiant: "Unless you've heard a bullet whiz past your ear, you shouldn't be allowed to start a war, and that goes for Congress as well," one message begins. "How many of their kids are in Iraq?"
Another piece, titled "Sacrifice," tells a story of loss: "My little brother got blowed up in Iraq - I.E.D. There was nothing left of him to send home. My daddy didn't believe he was dead. So they sent him a video to help him get closure. He'd just turned 21, too. He called from over there and said he could finally drink legally."
Then there is a piece called "Empathy" with thoughts from a Vietnam veteran: "When these guys come home from Iraq, I'm going to look them in the eyes, shake their hands and tell them they did a good job - no matter what they did. Because I know what they've been through. We were called baby killers and women killers, but some of the best shots were women. It was total civilian warfare. There are no rules in these wars."
The flag mosaics are posted at Richardson's website, www.mosaicpeacebypeace.com. They're also on display at Newfane Cafe & Creamery, which is a short walk along Route 30 from where the flag display will be assembled this morning.
As in past years, Richardson is asking anyone who wants to help with installation to stop by starting at 9 a.m. Also, there will be painting supplies available for those who want to create a flag.
"There are absolutely folks who are committed year after year and come back," she said. "But there are new people every year as well."
There almost was no display this year. With U.S. troops having pulled out of Iraq, Richardson said she had considered not installing the flags.
But she noted that there were 54 Americans killed in Iraq in 2011. So the exhibit's final flag count will be 4,486.
"I've got mixed feelings about (ending) it," Richardson said. "This project has been exhausting and exhilarating."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.