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A small memorial disappears, but a large one wouldn't

They usually went on Sunday evenings, when it was quiet, to have a few minutes with their son.

On the grassy median, across from the McDonald's and in sight of the gates to MacDill Air Force Base, Andy Aviles' mother and father would lay flowers beneath his picture. In Memory of Lance Corporal Andrew J. Aviles. April 7, 2003, it said. His mother always brought a cloth to wipe away any dirt that had gotten on his face.

He was two weeks shy of his 19th birthday when he died. They buried him at Arlington nearly three years ago, their Andy, the Robinson High honor student and cheerleader, the young man for whom a Florida State scholarship would have to wait while he served his country. He died near the Tigris River when an artillery round hit his vehicle. The makeshift roadside memorial back home was a small solace, a hometown place to mourn.

Until last week, when somebody made it disappear.

The Avileses never knew who first put up Andy's picture outside the Dale Mabry entrance to MacDill after he was killed, but they thought it was beautiful. When the picture got weathered, they went to Kinko's and had one covered in plastic. Someone made a curving metal cross and hung a rosary. The memorial became a small circle of garden bricks, a solar light, white pebbles. People left cards and balloons. Once, his parents found a serviceman's hat with a note that said, "to my fellow brother Marine."

Oscar Aviles said people in uniform drove past and saluted his son.

On Valentine's Day, the father came with roses. But the memorial was gone, all but the cross and the rosary. He went home with his roses. When his wife asked what happened, he could not keep from crying. "It's not only a slap in the face to us, but it's a slap in the face to the community, and it's a slap in the face to the military," he told me.

Who would do this?

Untouched for years, the memorial disappeared days before President Bush was to roll into town. It was methodically removed, not smashed by random thugs. In these days of controversy over antiwar mom Cindy Sheehan, the timing is, at the least, suspect.

Maybe it was removed on order from some authority. Or maybe someone didn't think the president should have to see a picture of a dead Marine. (The city, county, state, MacDill and the White House have all said they had nothing to do with it.)

Oscar Aviles will tell you that he is proud to be an American, that he loves his country. He does not agree with this war, he says, but he has the deepest respect for the military. He believes his son was doing the job he signed up for, and he is proud of him. What was there in the median was tribute, not protest.

I keep imagining somebody gathering up those small things left there, a Christmas card, a note, a spray of flowers. I keep wondering if that person looked at Andy in the photograph, young and serious in his uniform.

The Avileses don't want to think the picture was thrown in the garbage somewhere. Yes, they have other pictures. It doesn't matter if they have a million other pictures.

When the president came to town last week, Norma Aviles stood at the roadside with a picture of her son. The Avileses have been calling elected officials. They hope to turn that spot into a permanent memorial to Andy and other fallen soldiers.

A couple of years ago on a corner of Bayshore Boulevard, city officials put up a flagpole and a sign to honor the Bayshore Patriots, a group that started regularly waving flags there after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. When Bush was in town last week, he stopped to thank them.

So how about this: How about an official corner for those who want to wave the red, white and blue, and not far away, an official memorial to the men and women who gave their lives for it.

What could be more American than that?

Sue Carlton can be reached at