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All in the Family
Returning soldiers and their spouses, parents, and children are the backbone of the antiwar movement spreading today in the United States. And they're speaking louder than ever.
By Nan Levinson, Boston Globe
CARLOS ARREDONDO, a wiry man with expansive gestures, circles the Cambridge Common, handing out copies of letters his son Alexander wrote in January 2003 as he shipped out for his first tour of duty in Iraq. "I feel so lucky to be blessed with the chance to defend my country 6 months after I joined the military," Alexander writes to his brother. To his parents: "I am not afraid of dying. I am more afraid of what will happen to all the ones that I love if something happens to me." He had enlisted in the Marines at 17, just before beginning his senior year in high school at Blue Hills Regional Technical School in Canton, and left for training days after graduation. On August 25, 2004, Alexander Arredondo was killed in Najaf, Iraq. He was 20 years old.
When the Marines came to inform Arredondo of his son's death and stayed after he asked them to leave, he set their van on fire, burning over a quarter of his body in the process. Carlos comes from Costa Rica - a country, he notes, with no standing army. He says that he translates from Spanish in his head before speaking and explains that only now have he and his doctors decided he's well enough to speak publicly. (He's a quick study: A week later, he says, "I know how to spell in two languages, `impeach'.") Now, he repeats his story to all comers: to honor his son, he explains, and to stop the war and save other families such anguish. "Everyone's story is difficult," observes his wife, Melida Arredondo. "Ours just got more coverage."
Carlos Arredondo (left), his wife, Melida, and son, Brian Arredondo, who is wearing the dog tags of his dead brother, Alexander. "Any [military] recruiter would have to kill us in order to get to Brian," Melida says.
The Arredondos are in Cambridge as members of Military Families Speak Out, a national non-partisan organization of people who have relatives in the military and who oppose the war in Iraq. It was started by labor activists Nancy Lessin and her husband, Charley Richardson, from their Jamaica Plain home in November 2002, when Richardson's son, Joe, then in the Marines, learned he might be sent to Iraq. (Joe now works in the private sector in the Washington, D.C., area.) MFSO has grown in three years to include some 2,600 families from every state. Its membership, according to Lessin, mirrors the working-class makeup and racial mix of the military - about two-thirds white and one-third people of color. MFSO is one of the four loosely affiliated, military-related groups sponsoring the Bring Them Home Now bus tour that began in Crawford, Texas, as Cindy Sheehan ended her August encampment near President Bush's ranch there.
The four groups - MFSO, Gold Star Families for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and Veterans for Peace - exhibit all the variety and jumble of grass-roots organizations: You join by filling out a form and become active mostly by showing up. But, for the moment, they share clear political goals: End the war in Iraq immediately, take care of soldiers on their return, and never again letAmerica embark on an insupportable war. This afternoon, this whistle-stop tour to 51 cities in 28 states is coming to Cambridge before convening in Washington, D.C., for a large antiwar march. Carlos Arredondo, who lives in Roslindale, is part of the group gathered for a welcoming rally.
The day is swampy for September, the buses are late, and the crowd is more middle-aged than young. (Someone suggests that kids involved in antiwar work make Web sites, not rallies.) One woman waves an American flag, and a couple of local politicians work the crowd. Near the stage, a group of women begins to sing, and the close harmonies of "Ain't gonna study war no more" float into the air.
Deja vu aside, it may not be your father's war, but it is your father's - and sister's, son's, and lover's - protest. The Bring Them Home Now campaign is respectful of soldiers, unabashedly steeped in love of country, eloquent in its ordinariness, and, like the Vietnam War protests, tailored to its historical moment. It is an antiwar movement by way of family values, and that often gives it startling symbolic and rhetorical power.
IT'S A TRUISM THAT GENERALS always fight the last war; right now, the American public seems to be fighting the last antiwar movement. Though veterans played a significant role in protesting the Vietnam War - the last war long enough for a broad-based antiwar movement to form in the United States - the prevailing image from that time is of hostile protesters squaring off against alienated soldiers. Antiwar activists still bring up the probably apocryphal story of demonstrators spitting on returning soldiers, mostly to discredit the story, but the division haunts this country. So, from the first, the larger campaign to keep the United States from invading Iraq made a point of reaching out to soldiers and their families.
Indeed, families have sustained the campaign, even when other protesters became discouraged. "When the bombs dropped on Baghdad on March 19, 2003, within a week and a half there were 50,000 people on the Boston Common to protest," says Lessin. "Since then, the largest number that has been assembled was 2,000. Where did 48,000 people go?" By contrast, the military-related groups kept active and kept growing. MFSO has mushroomed; veterans' groups Iraq Veterans Against War and Veterans for Peace count hundreds of New England members now; and Gold Star Families for Peace, which formed last January - a group made up of the relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq - now has about 50 members nationally.
It is not surprising, then, that over the last few months, as antiwar sentiment has grown louder in this country, military families have been taking the movement's lead. Those who fought in Iraq bring the authority of having been there; those with close ties to soldiers bring a reckoning of what relatively few Americans are asked to bear or even acknowledge.
Though the groups represent only a tiny fraction of military families or returning troops, their steady growth is notable, especially given all that makes it easier to keep quiet. Some soldiers and their relatives say they feel isolated or fear retribution from the military, such as thwarted careers or risky assignments. Some are traumatized. And some lack the time or money for activism. The Arredondos, for instance, talk often to Spanish-speaking groups but strain to cover their costs; Melida is a supervisor for HIV services at Uphams Corner Health Center, and Carlos picks up work as a landscaper and handyman. Many others with military connections simply don't count themselves as part of the entitled class that assumes its opinions carry weight. "Military people feel their opinion doesn't matter," said Army reservist John Hustad in March 2003, explaining what led him and a friend to publicly urge fellow soldiers to question the Iraq war. Then there's the "code of silence" that discourages people with military affiliations from expressing disaffection or doubt. "There's this invisible line," Dave Wilson, then an Army sergeant, said in an e-mail sent from Kuwait at the start of the war. "If you cross it, you could end up washing a lot of dishes." Only the price is usually higher than dishpan hands.
UNLIKE WORLD WAR II OR VIETNAM, where the draft helped distribute the burden more evenly across the population, the Iraq war is largely a working-class war. "One lesson learned from Vietnam," observes Richardson, "is if you're going to start a war, don't even pretend to threaten the sons and daughters of the upper middle class or the rich."
The energizing spirit of the Vietnam protests came from kids of draft age from all classes, taking to the barricades out of self-interest, as well as idealism, and fueling a social revolution that dominated America for decades. In contrast, the heart of this current antiwar movement is Cindy Sheehan, a middle-aged woman with a little-girl voice, backed by thousands of other parents with equally vivid complaints.
Despite the necessary irreverence and occasional Che T-shirt, these aren't people likely to start a revolution, but they do feel betrayed by their government. "Why can't we hold elected officials accountable?" demands Rose Gonzalez, an office manager from Somerville and daughter of a 47-year-old National Guardswoman sent to Iraq. "What could be more loving as a parent, more patriotic, than to speak out against something that's wrong?" asks Nina Douglass, a social worker from Jamaica Plain whose stepson is on his second tour in Iraq. "I think there's a place for the military," says Dot Halvorsen, a retired English teacher who now sells real estate in Bennington, Vermont. "Just not in Iraq." Her son, an Army pilot, was killed two weeks into the war.
Most of these campaigners, particularly those on the bus tour, are by now seasoned speakers. They have dredged up awful memories and fears, choked back tears, offered details of their everyday lives and ambitions, and borne witness to sacrificing what is precious to them in the name of justifications that have been discredited or abandoned. What keeps their ritual storytelling from dissolving into a grief-fest is their wonderfully American faith in the power of collective voices - which is, after all, what democracy is supposed to be about.
"Somebody I once worked with asked if I knew what a just war was," says Richardson, who tends to talk in enumerated points. "I started to give a long answer, and he interrupted and said, `No, it's much simpler. A just war is one that you'd send your own kids off to fight.' One of the things that Military Families has said is the code of silence is wrong. It's wrong for military families, but it's also wrong for the nation. If you're talking about war, the people who have something at risk, their voices are important."
In the fall of 2002, when Joe told his father and stepmother that he expected to be deployed, Lessin says, "It became very important to me to do everything I could to prevent the war from happening." At antiwar events, she and Richardson identified themselves as parents of a Marine and found that people connected with them differently than with other protesters.
Lessin works with the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, and Richardson directs the Labor Extension Program at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, so organizing came readily to them. "Individuals don't end wars, movements end wars," Richardson says. They created Military Families Speak Out with Jeff McKenzie, a military father from upstate New York whom they met at a rally in Washington, D.C.; now, they say, it's the largest organization of its kind in American history - a safe claim, since there haven't been many like it.
When its original strategy for preventing war failed, MFSO turned its efforts to ending it, but members quickly realized that they could and should do more. They gathered and shared information about the hazards soldiers face, including post-traumatic stress, and focused attention on local issues, such as the costs to communities with large National Guard deployments. Throughout the organization, these goals provided unity for a membership that ranges across the political spectrum and may agree on little else. For Lessin, MFSO members arguing over things that matter is a point of pride. "I think it's a model for what needs to be happening in the country at large, and it isn't," she says.
MFSO's greatest influence thus far has probably been in helping push the national debate from whether to bring the troops home to how soon to do so. A critic of MFSO's approach is Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Operation Truth, an advocacy organization of Iraq veterans. Rieckhoff calls the emphasis on immediate withdrawal unrealistic for Americans and irresponsible to Iraqis, arguing that what's needed is a practical exit strategy. "I think they lose a lot of Americans when they say, `Bring them home now,'" he says.
Lessin and Richardson grant that the "now" part is controversial, even among MFSO members, though they also emphasize the United States' obligation to help rebuild Iraq. Still, Richardson insists, "Until you remove the occupation, you can't even talk about building a civil society in Iraq." An equal-opportunity nag, MFSO pressures both Democrats and Republicans and declines to support specific legislation, such as the bipartisan proposal currently in the House to begin troop withdrawal from Iraq by October 1, 2006 - conveniently close to the US congressional elections, Lessin observes. "We say very clearly," she says, "that we are not about making deals with the lives of our children."
ANDY SAPP, an English teacher at Concord-Carlisle High School, is a National Guardsman who returned home to Billerica in October after nine months in Iraq. But he is still deployed overseas when the bus tour comes to Cambridge. At an event the night before, his wife, Anne, a special-education tutor, talks about life without him: lobbying the governor, rushing home to pick up or drop off their daughters, defrosting pizza for dinner again. "I'm tired," she says. "I want my life back."
She also wants those daughters, Lydia, 17, and Mary, 8, to understand why political involvement matters. "As Americans, we can do this, and we should do it," she says. The next day at the Cambridge Common, she takes to the stage in an Army T-shirt, her hand plucking at her pants as she tells the audience that she worries her husband has changed. "He has a gentle soul," she says, then reads from an e-mail he has just written: "I get angrier and angrier. In fact, I wonder if I will ever NOT be angry."
Sapp is unusual in her ease in speaking for her husband. Often, MFSO members say their relatives support their right to protest but ask that they never speak for them - and sometimes not even name them. Others describe a familial civil war or a painful struggle for reconciliation. Perhaps the Sapps are in synch because they see themselves as a proud military family.
Andy was in the Navy when he and Anne met in 1979, and has been in various branches of the reserves or National Guard most of the time since. In March 2004, he found out that his National Guard unit was being deployed. Andy now says that everyone in the Guard knew he or she might have to go to war. Still, the Sapps had hoped that he, at 48, would be able to avoid it.
After Andy left for Iraq, Anne says she wanted to be with people in the same situation who were doing something about it. "There's a grieving process every day," she says, "but no focus." MFSO, with its mix of support and activism, clicked for her. Lydia, a self-possessed high school senior with a blond ponytail and multiple rings on her fingers, signed up right away. She wrote to Lessin and Richardson, suggesting they involve teenagers, and they responded by inviting her to speak at Faneuil Hall last January.
Anne and Andy were raised in conservative families, "Republicans back to Abraham Lincoln," he says of his. He is a soft-spoken man with a mobile face and a ready laugh, and when he was home on R & R in August, he spoke with quiet, careful anger. "The men and women who fight under our flag deserve to have civilian leaders who respect them, not as tools of international policy, but as the patriots they claim they believe we are."
He argues that one way to show that respect would be for the chain of command to stop trying to portray antiwar protests as attacks on the military. "I have yet to run into a soldier in the Middle East who hasn't felt supported. I'm pretty sure that the majority of soldiers over there understand that there's discussion going on back here, some of it heated, about the justness of this war," he says. "What Anne is doing here is more important than what we're doing in Iraq, because if we're overseas bringing about democracy at the expense of our own democracy, then we're destroying ourselves."
"RETURNING SOLDIERS always try to make it not a waste," observes David Cline, president of Veterans for Peace, a 20-year-old organization based in St. Louis with a national membership of about 4,000 people. These are veterans of all of the United States' wars, though many of its leaders cut their political protest teeth in Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Redemption may not be on the minds of the 15 Vietnam- and Korea-era vets gathered in Davis Square in Somerville on a September evening for a meeting of the Smedley Butler Brigade, the Boston chapter of VFP, but they are clearly comrades against arms. They discuss getting "boots on the ground" for a protest in Braintree, campaigning to pressure the Boston Globe to publish US casualty figures in Iraq on the front page, and gathering signatures for a ballot initiative requiring the governor to prevent further deployment of the Massachusetts National Guard to Iraq. "We're not antiwar," says member Ken Farr, a retired business analyst from Roslindale. "We're pro-peace."
Membership in VFP has swelled since 9/11, as has its role in helping returning soldiers deal with their disillusionment and frustration. In the summer of 2004 in Boston, with the conventions of both Veterans for Peace and, coincidentally, the Democratic Party as backdrops, nine Iraq vets announced the formation of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Their influence is greater than their numbers, says Smedley Butler member Winston Warfield, a computer programmer and Little League coach from Dorchester, because they draw respect from soldiers in the field, and respect is what matters in the military.
Much as Iraq vets may have appreciated the hate-the-war-love-the-warrior stance of this new antiwar movement, now that they have returned to civilian life, some are eager to speak for themselves. At 25, Joseph Turcotte of Derry, New Hampshire, is that state's youngest member of Veterans for Peace and also one of a handful of IVAW members in New England. He says: "Going to Iraq has put me into a relatively small brotherhood of people who have been in armed conflict, and that puts me in a unique position. Someone sees [me protesting] and says, `I agree with that guy. I just didn't have the courage to do it alone.' So now he comes, stands next to me. I'm not alone, he's not alone, and more people come. It just takes one person to start a movement."
Turcotte was in the first wave of US troops entering Iraq. Three years earlier, he was a high school graduate with a dead-end job at a large retailer and no money for college when a military recruiter phoned, looking for his roommate. The roommate, he says, "was arthritic, asthmatic, manic-depressive, a laundry list of -isms," and Turcotte got recruited instead. Attracted by the benefits and the derring-do, he joined the Marines, but the country had been at peace for most of his life, and he never expected to fight. Then came 9/11. On a large-screen TV at Fort Bragg, California, in what is called the "morale tent," he watched the World Trade Center crumble. He says, "The first thought we had was, `God, we're all going to war!'"
On March 18, 2003, Turcotte had been stationed in Kuwait for about a month. Before soldiers go into battle, they are told to write a final letter home, and, that day, his officers told him to do so. "That night, one of the chaplains went out in the desert and started playing `Amazing Grace' with bagpipes," he remembers. "The next day, we loaded up on the trucks and headed across the border."
Turcotte is a reader - the bedroom of his tiny apartment is dominated by a bursting bookcase - and his reading had made him skeptical about the need for war, he says. Still, he echoes other soldiers as he explains, "When you're out there, the only thing relevant is staying alive and making sure everyone comes home." Turcotte has thought hard about what he and his fellow soldiers do. " `Every subject's duty is the King's, but every subject's soul is his own,' " he quotes from Henry V. "I don't blame the individual soldiers. As far as they can't control where they are, I think that their souls are safe. But for the men who sent them, I think they're finding out that there's going to be hell to pay for it."
Turcotte is now back working a different dead-end job for a different large retailer, but he's making plans to go to college, and hopes to become a history teacher. Meanwhile, he has just represented IVAW at an antiwar event at the University of Vermont in Burlington. That such an active peace agenda should come from soldiers and their families is an irony he recognizes, but, he says simply, "We learned our lesson."
Nan Levinson, the author of Outspoken: Free Speech Stories, lives in Somerville.
E-mail her at email@example.com.