Iraq War Veterans' Voices: Jane Collins Book Signing
Jane Collins graduated from Harvard/Radcliffe College in 1971 with a bachelor's degree in English literature, magna cum laude, and then moved to the country to live a hippie life, which she has never regretted. She has made handpuppets to sell on the street; taught video production and editing to hundreds of people in the mid-'70s; raised baby calves on a kibbutz ranch in the Golan Heights; raised baby humans on a hill-farm in eastern Kentucky; worked as an organizer of homeless families; been an advocate, writer, and researcher in the field of human services; and done more low-level administrative work than she cares to remember. She has been active in peace, human rights, environmental and antiracism work since 1968. Some of Jane's writing is available online at http://www.janecollins.org/.
The text of Jane Collins' talk at the Friends Meeting House in Cambridge, MA:
We're meeting here at a very interesting time in the sense of the Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." Justice Scalia recently informed those of us who are still angry that the Supreme Court gave the 2000 election to Bush that we should just "get over it." Eight years of destruction, aggression and regression the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer the trashing of our economy the loss of precious time in fighting global warming the loss of worldwide respect for our country the loss and ruination of tens of thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands or maybe millions of Iraqi lives, all because of a President we did not elect and we're supposed to just get over it!
Meanwhile, the Democratic candidates for President are tearing each other apart so thoroughly that it seems more and more likely that we'll end up with President McCain. And the vast sucking sound we hear is the money we need to fix what needs fixing in this country going down the drain of a cruel, counterproductive and totally unnecessary war.
Interesting times indeed.
At this low point in American history, when we need a vigorous anti-war movement more than at any time in the last 35 years, where the heck is it?
In March, on the 5th anniversary of the Iraq War, the testimony of American troops at the Winter Soldiers hearings received hardly any media attention, in spite of the horrifying war crimes they described and public protests after five disastrous years of war were smaller than the protests before the war began!
Now you know, if you've been to any big anti-Iraq War protests, and I'm guessing that many of you have, that they are very colorful, creative, energetic and inspiring. Some of them, like in New York City in September 2005 or Washington DC in April 2006, have drawn hundreds of thousands of people, old and young, white and black. There's plenty of outrage but there's also a kind of joyous celebration of being together. There are great costumes, giant puppets, marching bands, memorable homemade signs, and anarchist cheerleaders with Goth outfits and black pompoms these events are thrilling to be part of. Yet the mainstream media ignore even the largest protests almost completely. Maybe they think the American people don't care to know about any event where people do not die gruesomely. Or no wait that can't be the reason, because so many people are dying gruesomely every day in Iraq, and the American people don't want to know about that either.
These days, we can't even tell how many people show up at demonstrations. The police don't do crowd counts any more. And do you think it's a coincidence that the military doesn't do body counts any more? In this culture, what you can't count, doesn't count. What you don't measure, doesn't matter. It also doesn't help the peace movement that in this free country of ours, we allow protesters to be cordoned off in areas where they are invisible to the general public. Easy to ignore. I think the people who are running this country have learned that they don't have to kill the opposition or even put us in jail. All they have to do is ignore us, and most of us will give up and go away. This tactic has been very effective in undermining the peace movement.
Millions of people hit the street in protest before the war started, and what happened? Nothing. The Democrats swept the 2006 elections with an anti-war platform, and what happened? Nothing. Polls come out showing that most Americans now believe we should never have invaded Iraq, and what happens? Nothing. Except Vice President Cheney said, "So what?" It's no wonder that many people who are against the war are so discouraged that they no longer bother to show up for protests. Activism just doesn't seem to be accomplishing anything.
Part of the problem is certainly the mainstream media. They were so caught up in the fear-mongering after September 11 that it took years for them to dare to analyze, never mind criticize, the most flagrantly misleading statements of the Bush administration. They bought and helped sell the story that the Bush administration was protecting us by going to war in Iraq, and anybody questioning the war was undermining our security. The result has been a virtual blackout of coverage of anti-war critics. The only things that do get through the blackout sometimes are the stories of individuals, soldiers or their families, who speak out about what the war has put them through.
Stories are what catch people's imaginations. Stories bring situations home to us in ways that statistics never can. Stories are what made us grasp the full horror of September 11, 2001. The media told us stories about the individuals who died, the mothers and fathers who left orphaned children, the adored children and grandchildren and siblings whose bereaved families would never be the same.
If anything could make Americans realize the full extent of the horrors we set into motion when we invaded Iraq, it would be the stories of individual Iraqis who have been killed, maimed, or forced to emigrate. But we're not going to hear those stories, because few reporters are willing to risk their lives to get them and very few editors are willing to print them and because this country is not letting Iraqi refugees emigrate to our shores so they can tell us their stories in person. Only about 1600 Iraqis were allowed to come here in fiscal year 2007, even fewer in previous years of the war, and you can be sure the administration was careful not to let in any potential storytellers.
So the only stories we're able to hear that can shed any light on what's really happening in Iraq are those of the troops who've been over there, and the families of those troops. Now I'd like to tell you a little bit about how I ended up making a book of the stories of some of those military families, people who have become activists against the Iraq War because of the soldiers they love.
My husband and I have both been peace activists since the Vietnam War. So when our oldest child enlisted in the Marines in 1998, we were pretty upset. This was during the Clinton administration, and our son believed that the American military was primarily a peacekeeping force. Maybe if the Supreme Court had allowed a full count of the Florida vote in 2000 no, I'm still not over it! that would have been the case. But as we now know, Bush came into office looking for an excuse to make war on Iraq, which his advisers believed would lead to American world domination in the 21st century. They wanted war, and 9/11 gave them an excuse to start one. The day after 9/11, Bush was already trying to connect that tragedy with Iraq, even though the real connection was to his buddies in Saudi Arabia. Bush has never been one to let facts stand in his way.
However, millions of Americans knew there was something fishy about the war on Iraq before it even began. We hit the streets hard, and so did millions of other people around the world, but it didn't do any good. So there I was with a child in the military and our country fighting a totally trumped up, illegal, immoral war on a country that posed no threat to us. I remembered the damage that was done to so many American soldiers by having to fight in Vietnam, another illegal, immoral and unnecessary war, and I was terrified that my child would be damaged like they were.
So I was very happy when I started seeing other military families at antiwar demonstrations. These were people who had the same fear I did, people with a personal reason for trying to stop the war. Some of them carried signs with photos of their loved ones in uniform, saying things like "This war is not worth my son's life". It wasn't hard to find them at demonstrations. They were always right up front, with veterans in uniform from other wars, especially Vietnam. It seemed like the peace movement has learned at least one lesson from Vietnam. The most powerful messengers against war are soldiers themselves, and their families.
Now that all the other rationales for the Iraq War have turned out to be lies, the Bush administration is falling back on the claim that you can't support our troops unless you support the war. Anti-war military families prove that this is just one more lie in the series, because obviously they support the troops. They love the troops. The troops are their children, their brothers and sisters, their spouses. They oppose the war, not in spite of the troops, but because of them.
My own child completed his military service without having to go to Iraq or Afghanistan. I'm tremendously grateful for this. But most military families are not so lucky. My family was spared their suffering, but it could easily have been otherwise. Knowing that, I decided to try to help raise awareness of the experiences of these families and their loved ones, which I think deserve more than the sound bites that are the most they usually get from mainstream American media.
There are interviews with twenty-nine people in my book, "For Love of a Soldier." I can't generalize about them except to say that they all passionately and publicly oppose the Iraq War, they want to bring the troops home immediately, and they insist that this country must take much better care of its veterans. Some of the people I interviewed are very funny. Some are understated and stoic. Many are furiously angry, with good reason; some are very sad, also, unfortunately, with good reason. They are white, black, Latino, Asian-American. Some have high school diplomas, some have doctorates. They come from many different states, cultures, and family situations. If I read one person's story to you today, I can't give you an idea of the diversity of these anti-war families. If I read excerpts from several stories, you won't get a deep sense of any one of them. So what I'm going to ask you before I do read some excerpts is please, if you're interested at all, read the whole book. I can promise you will be a richer person for getting to know these people. I know I am.
First I'll let you hear from Nancy Lessin and Charley Richardson, who founded the anti-Iraq War organization Military Families Speak Out, or MFSO. Nancy and Charley are long-time labor activists. Charley's son and Nancy's stepson, Joe, served in Iraq.
Nancy: It's so important-the support we give one another to get through the most horrendous experiences in our lives. If you don't experience it, you don't know what it's like to have someone in harm's way for no good reason. I think we share with all military families of all times the fear when a loved one is in combat, about what's going to happen. Nothing is as it was. The knock on the door takes on a new, sinister meaning. The phone ringing is a whole different experience. We share that.
But for those of us who believe that this war is illegal, it's immoral, it's unjust, it's unjustified, it's wrong, it should never have happened, to have our loved ones over there disrupts our lives in ways that are not comprehended by anyone who hasn't been in our shoes. What we have done organizationally is provide support for one another. It helps us get from day to day. It helps us to maybe do an action against the Iraq War in our community, but also to be with people who understand why we never turn our cellphone off, or why we can't function in a particular period of time because we haven't gotten an email from our loved one, and it keeps not coming. To have the support of people who have experienced that kind of fear, to be with each other, has been part of the ability to move forward and speak out.
The biggest single issue for those of us lucky enough to get our loved ones home is post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]. We have gotten emails from mothers who have taken the gun out of their son's mouth to stop them from blowing their brains out.
We get emails that say, "My husband is angry all the time." Or, "We're driving along the road and all of a sudden they'll swerve, thinking there's an IED [improvised explosive device]," or "My husband sleeps with a gun by the bed," or "I'm woken up most nights when he has nightmares." There are marriages that have disintegrated because of the anger and violence that servicemen have returned with. And there are emails we've gotten-one from a father whose two sons participated in the war, and he said, "It's like both of my sons are dead, one hasn't called us in over a year, another is drinking all the time and there's no relationship. That son's email address is walkingdead." Last Christmas, an MFSO member wrote, "Well, my son's body showed up for Christmas, but I don't know where his mind was; we could not connect at all." That devastation is not well understood.
When Joe came home, lots of people said to me, "Isn't it wonderful to have Joe home safe and sound." And my response at that time was, and it continues to be, those of us who have loved ones who participated in this war, we don't know if our loved ones will ever be safe or sound because of what they saw, what they did and what they were exposed to. Whether it was depleted uranium that could negatively impact their physical health for decades to come, or the psychological trauma of this war, this war doesn't end when they come home. Now we're having MFSO members whose loved ones are going on second, third, fourth, and fifth deployments. If you're diagnosed with PTSD in Iraq now, you're taken off the front lines for a couple days, given drugs, and sent back.
Charley: We hear all the time, "They volunteered, so shut up." First, it's not about whether or not they volunteered, it's about whether this was the right political decision for our country and for the world. Secondly, even if they did volunteer, how much can you ask of one individual or set of individuals? If the nation has made a political decision to go to war, the burden of that war should be spread across the nation. What this nation has decided to do is to sacrifice a tiny percentage, and to ignore that sacrifice because they're disconnected from it. What we're seeing is that only a few are forced to really bear the burden of this war, and that's why people have gone along with it, and allowed it to continue. It's not because they think it's right but that it doesn't affect them.
A friend of ours from the Steelworkers Union once told me, "A just war is one you'd send your own kids off to fight." That's the bar you should have to get over to send someone else's kid off to war.
Not all my interviewees are old hippies; one is a card-carrying member of the DAR, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and several come from families with long histories of military service. But Stacy Bannerman has been a peace activist her whole career. Her husband Lorin, a member of the Washington National Guard, served a year in Iraq and came home with PTSD. It has destroyed their marriage. Stacy has published a book about this experience, called "When the War Came Home: The Inside Story of Reservists and the Families They Leave Behind." Here she talks about what happened after the end of Lorin's tour of duty:
I encouraged him not to rush back to work, take another month to relax and regroup. He was very stoic, emotionally unavailable, distant. Little things would make him snap. For the most part, his affect was pretty flat. He used to be the most easy-going thing I'd ever seen. That's why I married him. I was thirty-five. I thought that ship had long past sailed. But he was unbelievable, so laid back.
Now, he's very distant. There are parts of him I just can't get to anymore. He's restless. In a way, he's callous. "Yeah, whatever. It sucks to be you." Or "It's your goat, you fuck it." That kind of stuff.
He stays up late, late, late, watches all kinds of videos of the war he got from the other guys in his unit. He tosses and turns when he is sleeping. He used to be able to fall asleep sitting up in a chair.
It's continuing. It's not getting better. At first, I just gave him his space, like it tells you in the little booklet. The military says give it time. It's not working so good. I still can't reach him.
I beg him to go to marriage counseling. We get five sessions. Lorin went to one. That was the end of that. I kept going. If you are the only one going to marriage counseling, doesn't that say something? What started out as a problem became kind of a pattern that defined the relationship. I ask him to reengage, point him toward resources, but you can't make anybody do anything. The gap in our relationship was never closed. My arms aren't long enough to make it all the way across.
Anne Sapp and her husband Andy are teachers and anti-war activists. Andy served for ten months in Iraq with the Army National Guard, and came home with PTSD.
When Andy came home, I knew I couldn't ask him anything. The military gives you cute little booklets to prepare for homecoming. The only honest thing they tell you is that it's more difficult than deployment. They say, "Don't ask; the soldier will tell you in his own time. Don't try to force it out of them."
The first two and a half weeks, he was so happy to be home. He always wrote he'd tell me what happened when he got home. But then they want to live life and forget about it. He started jumping at noises. He'd snap; he became more and more irritable. In his sleep, he'd twitch, moan, cry out like he was afraid. It was horrible. You're not supposed to wake them up; they might think you're the enemy and try to hurt you. He'd wake up and feel embarrassed and scared. I'd go to hug him, and he'd be stiff as a cement pillar.
He started driving really fast, coming behind vehicles close and fast and whipping around them. In Iraq, you don't stop and don't slow down. He doesn't want to have his back to a window or open space. He doesn't want to go out of the house. Waste cans scare him. There could be bombs in them.
It's gotten worse. At first, he'd cycle in and out, have good and bad days. My oldest daughter said she could tell when he's having a bad day: he holds his rifle arm close to him. Now he sees a psychiatrist and a social worker.
There's very little in the way of support groups for families of veterans. They can only do a VA group if the military person is there too. But they've already taken on so much guilt, families couldn't be honest about what they're suffering. Andy heard of a wife who killed herself while her husband was away. Dealing with it is hard enough, but trying to find help and not finding it is another injury.
I found myself on three meds for depression and anxiety from the stress of Andy coming home. I was feeling nothing. I slowly got off them, and I feel better. At least I feel.
I never thought I'd worry about Andy killing himself, but now I do. His driving scares the hell out of me. When he's gone, I think, "What if he doesn't come home?" A year after he came home, I thought he'd be in a better place. I'm still afraid I'm going to lose him. It doesn't end when they walk off the plane and they're in your arms. I don't know if I'll ever stop being afraid.
[Since our interview, Anne tells me, their family has continued to suffer repercussions both from Andy's PTSD and from their activism. After Anne called for the prosecution of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during an interview on a local TV station, Andy's unit received a phone call "from above" asking about their efforts to speak out, and telling the unit that she and Andy were being watched. They have also received hate mail from military families who support the war. Andy retired from the military in April 2007.]
Most of you are already familiar with one story in the book, because it made the national news. When the Marines came to tell Carlos Arredondo that his son Alex had been killed in Iraq, Carlos set their van on fire, and himself as well. In my book, Carlos's wife Melida tells the story. You might have seen Carlos at anti-war demonstrations. He's the one in a pickup truck decorated with large photos of Alex, and hauling a trailer with a flag-draped coffin like all the coffins the major media have agreed not to show us coming back from the war.
There are another few stories you might also have heard of: Bob Watada's son Ehren was the first commissioned officer to publicly refuse deployment to Iraq. Ehren is in the middle of a court martial trial in Washington state. Cathy Smith's son Tomas Young is confined to a wheelchair because of his injuries from the war. Phil Donahue has produced a terrific documentary about Tomas called "Body of War;" in my book, you get a mom's eye view of the situation. You might also have run into the stories of Joyce and Kevin Lucey, whose son Jeffrey killed himself in 2004 after serving in Iraq with the Marines. They've been very vocal, and they talk about their experience in my book in heartbreaking detail. But there are many other parents whose children committed suicide after serving in the war, and I'll read you a little of what one of them has to say. Her name is Laura Kent. Phillip, her only child, killed himself not long after he got his honorable discharge from the Army. Phillip had just been misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder, when what he really had was PTSD.
He didn't take his medication. He said it was making him sick. But he was ordered to therapy. I don't know how helpful that was. They gave him a hard time about that too. That was seen as being weak. He couldn't win for losing.
Then he started getting suicidal, in the summer of '04, I think. I've been so traumatized, I have trouble remembering dates. That summer, I saw him as much as I could. He was so erratic, couldn't sit still. He was having outbursts. He was so difficult to be around. He drove to see his dad, didn't get along with him. He drove off to God knows where. He said, with Jack Daniels and a gun, he'd take care of things himself.
I knew he was taking NoDoz, drinking those energy drinks with caffeine, living on that stuff. He wouldn't sleep in his bed. He slept on the floor, curled up in a ball.
Once he called me from his car, threatening to kill himself. I told him to call when he got home. I didn't know what to do. He came one night and said he was being chased by something. I kept him in my apartment for a day and a half that time. But things were getting worse and worse and worse. I was completely helpless.
I'm so glad I was in Texas. I needed to be there for him. I was like his home base.
In November '04 he got an honorable discharge. That's when he lost hope. He told me he had let everybody down.
He was still trying to reconcile with his wife. His dad got him to sign divorce papers, but he tore them up. He finally signed them when he moved back to Beaufort. He lived in the home where he was raised. His dad was going to help him get back on his feet. He got a job as a security guard. He had all day to think about all his problems. He drove himself to his death.
In September, I lost touch with him; he quit calling me. He wasn't answering his phone. I was sending cards, letters. I don't know why I didn't go down there. I wanted to give him some space. He saw my brother in Beaufort. They socialized in the evenings. They're like comrades, close in age-about ten years apart. I heard from people that he got a little puppy, he got a new girlfriend. I thought things were better.
My mother got very sick. She had an emergency: appendicitis. I called him and said, "Your grandmother is very sick." We had brisk words for each other. I said, "You need to stop feeling sorry for yourself." That was the last call we had.
People told me he wasn't calling anybody. He was coming home and drinking himself into a stupor. He didn't like living in that house; he was traumatized by our divorce, we had a very nasty divorce and he never got over it.
Then I got the call that he had shot himself. He had gone to work, came home, sat on the big porch in the wee hours of the morning. I don't know how many beer cans were scattered around. He was text-messaging some girl about what he was going to do. He shot himself, and he was there all night. The next morning, the trash man came and saw him on the porch.
I wanted my life to be over for a long time. Now I just thank God that I had him. He was a good son. I have such a hole in my heart right now.
But what I'm doing now is important for him. I've been asked to speak at two peace rallies and told everybody his story, how he loved his country and wanted to serve so badly, and how shabbily he was treated when he got home.
Whenever I hear about somebody else dying in Iraq, it just breaks my heart. But I've gotten to the point where I can help other families. It helps me to help others.
When I came back after my son's death, nobody talked to me at school. They don't know what to say. I had two weeks bereavement time. Not very long.
Now is the hard grief, the stuff that can take you down. You can make it through the first year, but they don't tell you that once it sinks in, that's the journey. Your mind never rests. It's like a video unwinding in front of your eyes. You still see that same thing. You never stop thinking about it. There's no room for anyone else. It consumes me; it takes all my emotional strength to deal with it. But I want to heal.
Something traumatic like that, it just happens. You think your life is going on, and then suddenly, boom, it's like you're blown out of your chair.
[I tell her I hope she gets back her joy in life some day.] Joy doesn't just happen. You have to look for joy.
Linda Waste and her husband Phil have three sons and two grandchildren who are veterans of the Iraq War. When I spoke with Linda in the fall of 2006, her family had given a total of 84 months of service in all, with more to come.
We've run the gamut. This is one thing people don't think about, what we go through as parents, spouses, siblings. You hear about a death in your son's unit, wait for seventy-two hours to hear. Then you're so grateful it's not yours. Then you cry from gratitude and grief-gratitude it's not yours, grief for the families who lost theirs…
It's tearing families apart. Phil and I have had a really hard time emotionally with this, knowing our kids were in danger and being unable to do anything about it. I went to Operation House Call in August and I told the women I was such a mess, I couldn't do anything. I went to the doctor's office, said I needed to see somebody; I fell apart, went on antidepressants. I've been on them for almost a year. The women on tour said, "Oh my God, me too."
You feel helpless, hopeless. How do I make a change? Phil kept me away from it for a while. But if I'm not speaking, not acting, I feel guilty.
People need to wake up in this country. I'm so ashamed and astounded that people don't even think about it. If it's not affecting them directly, they just don't worry about it. Americans are just so comfortable.
I had a congresswoman say to me last August, "Don't you believe the world is a safer place with Saddam Hussein out of power?" I just looked at her. How can you say such a thing?
"Better fight them there than here"-I think, how can you possibly believe that an Iraqi woman's life is any less important than mine, that her son's or husband's life is any less important than my son's or husband's?
Being with MFSO-it gives me hope, that there are sane people who know how wrong this is, willing to put it all on the line to get the truth out there. I'm so proud to be associated with these people. There's a lot that's positive coming from it, but it's very difficult to do. We talk with some people who get all their news from right-wing talk shows. That's scary. The frustration is that there aren't enough people protesting out there.
We listen to talk shows about us being "radical communists," like we're all these freaky people. I look around at the other people in MFSO. We're middle-aged, overweight, from all walks of life. Yeah, we're pretty dangerous!
Tim Kahlor's son Ryan has done two tours of Iraq. Let's just say that Tim is not a shy person. He's become one of the most visible anti-war activists in California. Meanwhile, Ryan has been diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injury, one of the most common injuries of this war. Tim started his political activism during Ryan's second tour of duty.
Naomi called to tell me his friend Mike was killed, someone Ryan had known from the first tour of duty. We got a letter from him. In the letter it said, "Parents,"he used to call us Parental Units"Yesterday my friend was shot and killed. His death has started an uproar of emotions in the platoon. Some have said they weren't going to fight anymore. No one understands why we're here or what our mission is. Dad, keep up your fight to bring the troops home."
It tore us up. I just went crazy. I did as much media as I could and got as much information out as I could. I was always involved and informed, but I am so much more now. When your kid asks you to do something . . . Once I chased a kid down the street in Huntington Beach, a rich area. The kid was around twenty. He said, "Your son's having a blast over there, like a video game." I wanted to tell him, "Mike is dead, this is no game."
I've had people tell me I was anti-American. I've gotten people in my face, letters, email, phone calls. My sister is like my watch guard. She constantly worries some one will hurt me. She found a blog saying, "If Tim Kahlor stands behind the troops, we'd rather he'd be in front of them."
I kept asking Ryan if he was okay with this. He said he was really proud of what I am doing. He says "Dad, it's your right." He supports me. My wife totally supports what I do, but the public stuff she lets me do.
People come over and say, "Your son is the reason you are allowed to do this." I say "Right. He gives me the right to do this." People wrap themselves in the flag, put up yellow stickers. It's BS. The yellow ribbons probably were made in China, a country with human rights violations.
People need to think when the U.S. does something, it's for a good cause. When you tell them the facts, it kills them. They don't want to see. September 11 pulled us together. But there was no connection between that and Iraq. Afghanistan was connected, not Iraq.
Ryan says he'd really like to see victory over there. The first tour, they had such good rapport with people. It's different now. He says they want us to leave. He says now, they'll never send enough troops to control the insurgency, control the borders. They'll never be able to do what Bush says he wants to.
People say, "Why don't they show the good happening over there?" Right after the election, I was in D.C., and I said, "Bush has the ability to order every military photographer to go and capture every good thing happening over there. It's not happening because nothing good is going on. If there's schools being built, show me. They get schools built, then they are blown up. So many contracts, billions of dollars spent to build things, and nothing comes of it."
It's craziness. There are schools in America that need funding. There is gang violence. We have horrors going on in LA that need to be addressed. Instead we're pouring money into Iraq…
In LA, we did the Oscars for Peace, on the day of the Oscars. I always try to put a face on this war with a photo of my son. There were kids connected to the Oscars, five teenagers. I had my poster: "My son spent twenty-four months in Iraq in combat." I said, "I'll give you an example." I pointed at one. I said, "The other four are blown up and you have to pick up the pieces, put them in body bags, and then go back to work. Ryan had to do this five times. All that was left of one was the head and skin."
I want people to feel what war is. We just do this "honor the fallen heroes" thing. Go down to the VA hospital. What will you do about them?
If you see an animal that's been hit by a car, it bothers you. Can you imagine seeing children on the street like that? That's what war is: blood and guts. It's human lives out there. I try to get people to feel the human pain. When a woman bends down and picks up her child and half of it is gone: can you imagine? That child meant as much to her as any of our children do to us. That's what war is…
It is our loved ones who are fighting and dying in this war. Do not ever tell me that we do not support the troops. We want the money to bring them all home safely. We don't want to take away money to treat PTSD, or take care of them, or keep them safe.
Ryan is having nightmares. He says they're so vivid. He's trying to get someplace, get to somebody. We get our kids home, and now it's chapter two: trying to keep them safe once they're home. We have to watch how they're doing mentally. The hell doesn't end. It's just a new hell.
The last story in the book belongs to Gilda Carbonaro. Gilda's only child, Alessandro Carbonaro, was killed in Iraq in May 2006.
As the second deployment drew near, he became very distant. We figured he was now a married person. A man leaves his parents, joins his wife; we understood. But it became worse. It would take him days to call me back.
Before the first deployment, we sat him down and spoke with him privately. We said, "Alex, you'll be in Iraq, among people-they're probably good men, but different from you. Just remember you're the son of Gilda and Fulvio. You know who you are, what your values are." He said, "Mom and Pop, you don't have to worry about any of that. I understand what you're saying and there should never be any doubt in your minds."
But when he came back, there was a change in him. When we heard about his second deployment, we drove down to Camp Lejeune. In the meantime, in fall, they'd bought a house. It was so neat to see your child so grownup and responsible, asking his father for advice. But this time, we arrived and he didn't come to meet us. We were so puzzled, so hurt. We couldn't get over it. His behavior was so hard to read. It was a difficult visit. He was very withdrawn, wouldn't engage in conversation. I'd look at him and he'd look sideways, not straight in my eyes.
He was poring over maps, worried about his men; as team leader, he was responsible for five men. He wanted to be as prepared as he could be. He was also obsessed with watching the news on CNN. He'd never watched the news. I'd always teased him about not reading the papers, always sent him articles, and now he was glued to CNN. He knew what he was headed for. He knew he was quite probably going to die.
So he left for his deployment. I got one message from Alex. Just one. I'd sent him a very funny video, Cat Massage, to give him a laugh. He responded, "I haven't had much time, mostly been down field, haven't slept more than three nights in my trailer, haven't showered in three weeks." They were exhausted, working so hard. In a letter he sent his wife, he said they were doing things by the seat of their pants. He was out in the field all the time. They keep sending them until they get killed. Absurd missions.
I'd baked his favorite almond cake, sealed it and sent it. It never reached him for his birthday. It came back after he died.
I was at school, teaching fifth-graders, when the chaplain came to my class and asked me to come out. She said the Marines had called the school. She gave me the phone number. They told me Alex had been in an explosion, ran over a bomb in his Humvee. Seventy percent of his body had second and third degree burns.
He'd been flown to Baghdad, and he was going to be flown to Landstuhl. Fulvio was able to arrive just a few hours after Alex got there. What met his eyes was something you never want to see: more dead than alive, in an induced coma, horrifically burned. His Humvee had been carrying fuel for the whole convoy. There were five Humvees in the convoy. The first three passed over the same spot. Alex's triggered it. It was fate-destiny. We all knew, including him. I think you feel these things.
The night before I was told, I'd had this strange thing happen as I lay in bed. Fulvio was in Egypt; he's an information technology consultant and works in developing countries. I'm not religious, but I was praying, "Please don't let Alex die in Iraq." We had visited Walter Reed Hospital, seen horrible injuries: triple amputations; men with their heads flat, blind, but still alive, they can still think and know what happened to them. It's horrible, horrific what we've done to these kids. I was thinking, "Don't let that happen to Alex."
Next morning, six a.m., first thing I do is call Fulvio at his hotel. He said, "What happened?" All alarmed. I said, "Nothing, I just wanted to make sure I could reach you if I needed to." I got to school at ten a.m. When the chaplain came to my room . . . It was the worst day of my life. The chaplain drove me home. I got on the phone, six hours after my first call. Fulvio says, "So now what?" I said, "Now it's real."
I wanted to protect my son so much. Once, I dreamt I had been accepted into recon. Imagine, a fifty-six-year-old woman! It was a special brigade of older women, still in training. But because the war had taken such a bad turn, our training had been interrupted and we were sent to Iraq. Our mission every night was to go to a house that had insurgents, look through the window, break in, and walk out without waking the insurgents. Stealth training. Alex laughed so hard when I told him. But in the dream, I'd contacted him, asked him if what the Marines were doing, was it right? Kosher? He said "No, Mom, be careful, it's not right."
I had another dream. I stood on top of a tangled highway in the desert, like spaghetti, leading nowhere. Alex was in a helmet and fatigues, I was in ordinary clothes. He said, "Look, we've done a lot." I said, "No, what is this? A highway made of crushed Humvees, rubber, tires, all smashed together to make this road."
Maybe if I'd been an oo-rah Marine mom, it would have been easier. But I thought I could do something. It didn't work out that way. It's like a Marquez book, Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Magic realism.
Part of my healing is to do what I can to help the American people understand what a mistake they made, that we are responsible for the deaths of all these people. This country must come to terms with what was done in our name. I will make this my life's work if need be. This is how I will honor my son and keep his memory alive.
Okay, I'm pretty sure that you're all depressed now. I'm also sure that you all admire the courage and perseverance of anti-war activist military families. Maybe some of you will buy my book of their stories today; that would be nice and I would appreciate it very much. But I think the most important thing that could come out of this reading would be for each one of you to take an additional kind of action that might be new for you.
Before I explain the kind of action I hope that you will take, I'd like to tell you about an experience I had the last time I was in Boston, in mid-March, for the 5th anniversary of the Iraq War. If you recall, most of the anniversary events happened on Wednesday, March 19, and it was a nasty, cold, windy, rainy day. Quite a few people managed to attend some of these events in spite of the weather.
The biggest Boston event was a vigil and memorial service for the American and Iraqi war dead at Park Street Station, organized by the United for Justice and Peace Coalition, which includes the American Friends Service Committee, thank you very much. A couple of hundred people came. Melida and Carlos Arredondo spoke very movingly, among others. The vigil lasted about an hour and a half. When it broke up, I walked to the other side of the Park Street T building, and there I found another anti-Iraq War demonstration, organized by MoveOn. The two demonstrations happened at the same time, at almost exactly the same place, but they were invisible to each other. Evidently neither organizing group was in communication with the other group. How did that happen?
If you've been involved with the progressive movement over the past few years, you know why it happened. The movement is a mess. Local groups don't talk to national groups. Anti-war groups don't talk to environmental groups which don't talk to social justice groups which don't talk to civil liberties groups. There are many good organizations but they mostly see one another as competitors for liberal dollars, for celebrity sponsorship and for the attention of the media. Where once upon a time there was a popular movement of individuals who cared about a wide range of issues, now there are only disconnected fragments of a movement composed of single-issue organizations.
But all the causes we care about are connected to the Iraq War. The war is sucking up the money and international goodwill that we need to do everything else. This war is keeping us from fighting climate change. This war is keeping us from getting health care for all. This war is eating up the funds that should go into education and affordable housing. This war is the enemy of every cause we hold dear. And the people who are most central in the effort to stop the war are anti-Iraq War veterans and anti-war military families.
So I would like to ask you to consider taking a new kind of action. Let's make stopping the war our top priority, and let's put antiwar veterans and their families out front in the effort. The next time you send a donation to public radio, ask them to work harder to include the voices of anti-war military families and veterans. When you go to a meeting about the environment, speak up about the loss of resources to the war. Organizations have borders and narrowly defined interests. Individuals do not. We will have to exert our personal power as members, donors and activists to insist that organizations cross their borders and join forces with other groups, and knit the fragmented movement back together again.
We have to take things to a new level. We have to try something different, because the old stuff isn't working. No matter who gets elected in November, this struggle is going to continue. And I hope the voices that you have heard today will inspire you to take steps you haven't taken before. There are anti-war military voices in your own community. Find them, and do something to help them get heard. Nag your local paper. Get them speaking engagements at your place of worship or your town hall. Because they can reach people's hearts, and unless we reach America's heart we can't stop this war. And until we can stop this war, we'll be stuck in these much too interesting times.
Page Updated September 1, 2009