Published on Wednesday, May 23, 2001 in the Columbus (GA) Ledger-Enquirer
Judge to rule today on School of Americas challengers' charges
by Jim Houston
COLUMBUS - The message of 24 protesters from the witness stand Tuesday in U.S. District Court was much the same as each expressed in November, when the group was arrested for trespassing on Fort Benning.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Dean Daskal's role was also streamlined. He read an agreement in which each defendant admitted crossing onto Fort Benning after having previously been banned from the military reservation by the installation's commander following an earlier trespass incident.
Defense attorney Peter Thompson of Minneapolis, who represents most of the defendants, said the agreement and the trial plan allowed the protesters, who range in age from 19 to 88, to freely express the experiences and beliefs that motivated them to risk up to six months in prison and a $5,000 fine.
"This will give you a sense of their purpose and their person," Thompson told Faircloth.
For all, the aim of their November 2000 protest, sponsored by the School of the Americas Watch, was to force closure of the U.S. Army School of the Americas. The school, moved from Panama to Fort Benning in 1984, trained and taught soldiers from Latin American nations for 54 years. School officials say its mission includes spreading the principles of democracy.
The school was officially closed in December, re-emerging in January as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, operating under the Department of Defense with a different curriculum.
John Ewers, 66, of Dayton, Ohio, who retired from NCR Corp. as director of manufacturing for six business forms plants, said during a mission to Colombia in 1998, he personally heard displaced Colombians tell how paramilitary units, led by School of the Americas-trained soldiers, forced them from their lands and into a life as scavengers on an abandoned garbage dump.
He also learned from human rights commissions' reports that of 240 human rights violations cited in Latin America, 147 involved graduates of the School of the Americas, Ewers said.
"I didn't really believe that the United States would be involved as it was," he told Faircloth. "I know there isn't a lot I can do, but I know there is something I can do."
Dorothy Marie Hennessey, 88, and her 69-year-old sister, Gwendolyn L. Hennessey, both nuns in the Sisters of St. Francis Order in Dubuque, Iowa, said they were motivated by their conviction that the School of the Americas trains soldiers who return to their countries to repress, kill and torture their country- men.
Dorothy Hennessey said she began actively seeking to stop the school after her brother, the Rev. Ron Hennessey, wrote her of the many atrocities he had witnessed in El Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s. "He asked, 'Can you do something about this?' she told Faircloth.
Rachel Hayward, a 19-year-old college student in Kalamazoo, Mich., said she was "speaking out against something I think is very wrong."
Lois Turner Putzier, 69, of Tucson, Ariz., said marching onto Fort Benning was her best way of protesting. "I wish I was as rich as Bill Gates because then I'd buy myself a congressman and I'd close that damn school," she told the judge.
With 24 trials Tuesday and one guilty plea Monday, only one case remains of the 26 charged from November's protest. Karl Henry Meyer of Nashville, Tenn., will represent himself in a trial that starts at 9 a.m. today.
Faircloth said his adjudication of guilt or innocence and sentencing of those who may be convicted will follow today's trial.
© 2001 Ledger-Enquirer