Last Sunday morning, Nancy Hiss double-checked her ever-growing stack of names, grabbed a piece of bright yellow chalk from a bucket and quickly wrote "BLOCK" in clean strokes on the sidewalk of Northeast Broadway and 24th Avenue.
"Block" is Spc. Kamisha J. Block, a 20-year-old Texas military policewoman who died Aug. 16, 2007, in Baghdad—the 4,000th soldier from the U.S.-led coalition to be killed in the line of duty. (As of Tuesday, there were 4,279 deaths overall, 3,973 of them American, according to a CNN count.) Hiss, 52, and her 51-year-old husband, Dan Berkman, have been writing on sidewalks since last May, when they began the Iraq Names Project (iraqnamesproject.wordpress.com).
As the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war approaches March 20, Hiss remains optimistic that her mission—to ensure Portlanders don't forget the human cost of the war—is not in vain. Hiss, director of interior design at Marylhurst University, spends an hour each morning writing on Portland sidewalks the names of soldiers who've died in Iraq.
"My life was totally untouched by this war," says Hiss, a Northeast Portlander who considers herself an antiwar activist, "and as a nation I think that's pretty normal. But we need to bring it out there—we need to share in this."
She began last May at the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse at dawn, and has continued down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and looped around Northeast Alberta Street. Hiss has written the victims' last names chronologically—outlining letters and then leaving the colored pieces of chalk next to the names for her husband or volunteers to color in.
She says response has generally been friendly, save for several passersby carelessly stepping on the names.
Volunteers are sporadic but diverse—everyone from Girl Scout troops to skateboarders help color in the names. She's grateful for any help to keep up with the deaths, but is never pushy.
"I don't want to make anyone feel obligated," Hiss says. "I just want them to feel welcome. To me this is just a natural thing to do."
Hiss has covered nearly 10 miles in nine months and used more than 220 boxes of sidewalk chalk. She spends about $20 a week on chalk and another $20 a week on fliers.