Paul Swenson was reading the newspaper on a flight home from northern California six years ago, when a number jumped out at him: 3,031. That's how many people were estimated to have died in the terrorist attacks on the United States one year earlier, on Sept. 11, 2001.
"They were still confirming deaths and people weren't sure how to observe the first anniversary," says Paul, owner of Sandy's Colonial Flag. "I remember sitting there, thinking, 'I need to find a way to show that number with flags."'
One week later, at 3 a.m. on Sept. 11, Paul climbed into his car and drove to Sandy City Hall, where he and volunteers had spent hours setting up 3,031 American flags across two lawns lining the Centennial Parkway the night before.
As the flags fluttered lightly in the moonlight, Paul noticed a woman walking from row to row, hugging each flag.
"That's when it dawned on me this would be more than just a commemoration, it would be a personal experience for every person who visited," he says. "People could touch the flags, wrap themselves in the flags. It wasn't only a spiritual place it was a healing field."
Today, Paul's flags will once again wave in tidy rows outside city hall. But "healing fields" will also decorate parks and cornfields across the country in tributes set up by Paul's National Healing Field Foundation.
Since that first impromptu event in Sandy in 2002, the foundation has organized 220 patriotic displays, including a flag exhibit at the Pentagon today in honor of those who died there seven years ago.
"The people who lost somebody they're still dealing with Sept. 11th every day," says Paul, 52, over a Free Lunch of fish and chips at Red Robin during a break from planning the festivities. "They're the reason we're still doing this."
As a daily reminder, he keeps a message on his answering machine from the mother of a young woman who died in the World Trade Center attacks. "After that first healing field," says Paul, "she called to say 'thank you,' that it was nice to know there was somebody who hadn't forgotten her daughter."
Paul wasn't surprised when his simple concept of using flags to represent those who died on Sept. 11th soon expanded to symbolize others who have lost their lives: Soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, people killed by drunk drivers, children who were victims of child abuse.
"The healing field is a place of comfort to everyone young, old, rich, poor, Republican or Democrat it doesn't matter," he says. "There is something about all those flags. You'd have to be a pretty thick-skinned person not to be touched in some way."
So many people want to buy the flags at the end of each event that the Healing Field Foundation now sells them for $20 each, with profits going to local charities.
"My goal is for every small town across America every Mayberry to have a healing field," says Paul, whose patriotic streak began at age 3, when he wove red, white and blue crepe paper through the wheels of his tricycle."When you're out there alone, walking among all those flags, it's an incredible feeling. The field comes to life."
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