Susan Galleymore had traveled 7,472 miles from Alameda to search for
her son in Iraq and was close to finding him. The Army Ranger had urged her
not to come. He wouldn't even tell her where he was stationed. It was too
dangerous, he said.
But on Feb. 1, seven days after she arrived, the 48-year-old woman was
outside the U.S. military base where her son might be. Her car idled among a
dozen waiting to be inspected. She stepped out, her face covered in a borrowed
hijab, the traditional head scarf worn by Muslim women. She approached a gun-
toting U.S. soldier as he inspected a car.
Mother and son were united for a brief 90 minutes after she showed up outside his base. Photo courtesy of Susan Galleymore
"I'm coming up behind you, I mean you no harm," she said. She pulled out
her U.S. passport. "I have business here and I want to speak to your sergeant."
"Ma'am," the guard said firmly, as he whirled toward her. "Get back in
your car, ma'am!"
Galleymore held her ground. Six soldiers moved toward her. "I will do
that as soon as I talk to your sergeant," she said, and pulled down her hijab.
"You're American," one of the soldiers said.
The tension melted. Soon, she was inside the gate, hugging her son.
Galleymore had done what some military parents only consider during their
sleepless nights: She went to Iraq to find her son and see for herself how he
was doing. And the 90 minutes they spent together, she said, was well worth
"I wouldn't change a thing," Galleymore said. "But I felt sad when I went
home. I was going back to my safe little home, while all of these lives are
being destroyed over there."
The weeks before and after Galleymore's 10-day visit to Iraq have been a
complex transformation from the personal to the political. Her quest to find
out about her son has evolved into trying to understand what Iraqi mothers, as
well as other U.S. military parents, are going through.
That journey has been by turns lonely, satisfying and moving. It has cost
her close friendships, given her new ones and complicated her relationship
with her active-duty son Nick. Some objected to her post-trip writings about
Iraqis who told her of how "jittery GIs shoot Iraqi civilians in the streets,"
as she mentioned in one online essay.
Galleymore prefers not to use Nick's last name so that he is not harassed
by his colleagues for her anti-war views. She requested the same anonymity for
her daughter, who likewise doesn't share her mother's opinions on the war. But
others do, including the U.S. and Iraqi parents who've shared their concerns
in a series of interviews that Galleymore is gathering for a book. Many are
listed on her Web site, www.motherspeak.org.
Galleymore insists her project is not about election-year politics. She
would like to see the troops come home and opposes the U.S. occupation but is
not actively campaigning for any political candidate. She recently appeared at
a news conference sponsored by the group that coordinated civil disobedience
in San Francisco last month. And she traveled to Iraq with the women-founded
peace activist organization Code Pink, whose self-described mission includes
"giving President Bush a pink slip."
But she said her journey is about reconciliation, not partisanship. It
was about shining a light on what is happening to U.S. children in Iraq --
those serving in uniform -- and the Iraqi families whose lives have been
affected by the invasion, from the five U.S. soldiers and four American
contract workers who were killed Wednesday by Iraqi insurgents to the many
thousands of Iraqis who have died at American hands.
"What was most striking was how isolated the soldiers are over there,"
she said. "They're not interacting with the Iraqi people that much."
The need for cultural understanding was awakened during Galleymore's
early childhood in apartheid-era South Africa. Her white, middle-class family
owned a 30-unit hotel there, and with her parents busy running the 24-hour
business, she and her siblings were raised by black nannies. She saw
apartheid's inhumanity daily through their eyes, and she was repulsed by
seeing work crews of black men shackled at the ankles along the roadside.
She left home at 19 and met her husband, an American, while working in
Israel. They married when she was 20, moved to Berkeley and had two children
during their seven-year marriage. She became a U.S. citizen in 1985, admitting
that her view of the United States reflects the optimism of a new immigrant:
"We need to live up to our ideals." Especially in Iraq.
Galleymore was more political as a young mother, taking her young
children on protest marches during the Iran-Contra controversy of the mid-
1980s. Her children hung out with the progressive thinkers she met while
working for a food policy organization. But Galleymore's activism faded as her
children entered adolescence, her time eaten up by the demands of single
And somewhere along the line, her children didn't absorb her political
After Nick finished his third year at San Francisco State University and
had been accepted for transfer to UC Berkeley, he announced that he had joined
"It was a total surprise," Galleymore said. "It wasn't like he needed
money for college. He was already three years in, so that doesn't hold water."
She dismissed Nick's volunteering as a phase; it wasn't. Her son not only
wanted to be in the Army, he wanted to be in an elite unit. He passed up
completing his college degree and left for boot camp on Independence Day
Galleymore still doesn't know exactly why. They could never fully discuss
In January 2003, Nick was shipped to Afghanistan. He had become an Army
Ranger, a jump master for paratroopers and a sniper. He was in the thick of
the action. Last Dec. 19, his 26th birthday, Nick called to say he was headed
to Iraq. At that point, with U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians being killed
almost daily, Galleymore began to panic. She couldn't sleep at night, "because
I was thinking, 'My kid is going to get killed for something I don't believe
in, and I don't think he knows what he's getting into.' "
She began talking with other military mothers, hoping to get their
perspectives on how to cope. But many knew little about what was going on in
Iraq. Frustrating her effort to learn more about Nick was that she felt the
news reporting from the front lines was giving an overly rosy picture of the U.
At wit's end, she decided that the only way to calm her fears was to go
to Iraq. She got in touch with Code Pink, which has led about a dozen parents
to Iraq over the past few months. After holding a fund-raiser, which netted
half of the trip's $2,200 cost, she left for Iraq on Jan. 24.
Her goal was to interview Iraqi mothers and to find her son -- even
though three days before she left, he had begged her not to come. It was too
dangerous; the landscape was littered with bandits and homemade explosive
devices, he said.
Susan Galleymore didn't expect her son to join the Army, and she worried when he was sent to Iraq. Chronicle photo by Carlos Avila Gonzalez
Nick was prophetic. During their 12-hour ride into Baghdad from Jordan,
one of the three cars in the convoy was pulled over and its occupants robbed.
No one was hurt.
The group's first few days were filled with visits to hospitals,
orphanages and politicians and a ground-level view of the occupation.
Galleymore was devastated by the story she was told by an Iraqi mother: The
woman, pregnant at the time, had been riding in a car with her family when,
she says, U.S. soldiers shot and killed three of her four children and her
A few days before they were about to leave, she received an e-mail from
her son. Nick had relented. He said if she wanted to see him, his mother
should contact his base's public information officer. Galleymore did. A
journalist friend helped her find the location.
After the scene outside the gate, Galleymore met some of her son's
friends inside. They couldn't believe she was who she was.
"You mean, you're his mom?" one asked incredulously as he was about to
call for Nick.
"Yeah," Galleymore said. "But don't say that. Say, 'Susan's here.' "
Of course they didn't follow instructions. The call went out on the two-
way radio: "Hey, Nick. Your mom's here."
Twenty minutes later, Nick arrived. He was dressed in full gear and
smiling broadly. He hadn't seen his mother in five months. They embraced, and
Galleymore gave him the See's nuts-and-chews candy, Power Bars and fruit
drinks from REI that she had carried halfway around the world for him.
They talked for 90 minutes alone. Nick showed his mom around the base a
bit, even accompanied her to see the view from a guard tower. Galleymore said
there was no hostility; they didn't talk politics. They were just in the
moment, mother and son. Every few minutes, Nick would shake his head and say,
"I can't believe you're here."
"The only thing I told him was, 'Don't do anything in Iraq that you'll be
ashamed of in the future,' " Galleymore said.
They embraced and exchanged "I love you's," and she returned home. She
had seen where he was and even met some of his fellow soldiers.
But reactions to her trip have been mixed -- especially after she began
writing a Weblog and essays that have spoken frankly about shootings of Iraqi
civilians, overcrowded hospitals and young GIs who may be suffering
emotionally and physically. Some longtime friends, even a few who contributed
to her Iraq trip fund-raiser, have stopped talking to her. She doesn't know
Many military parents have ripped her, saying she embarrassed her son and
put herself in harm's way. Other mothers have contacted her wanting to know
when the next trip is.
"She did what any mother in her position would do: She said, 'The hell
with it, I'm going,' " said Marianne Brown in an interview. The Michigan
mother, whose 21-year-old son is serving in a military police unit in Iraq,
contacted Galleymore after she returned from Iraq, wanting to go find her son.
U.S. military officials strongly urge parents not to go to Iraq. Instead,
they should contact the stateside representative of their child's unit, said
82nd Airborne spokeswoman Master Sgt. Pam Smith. There are innumerable ways
for an untrained civilian to be harmed in such chaos.
"I'm a mother, too, so I know how she feels," Smith said. "But it is
extremely dangerous over there."
Danger seems irrelevant to parents concerned about their children, and
about other children they see in Iraq, said Code Pink co-founder Jodie Evans,
who was on the trip. "You're not thinking about the danger. You're thinking
about seeing your child."
Galleymore was one of the lucky ones, Evans said. She's been to Iraq with
parents who have left without seeing their children.
The best news for Galleymore is that Nick is on his way home, due to
arrive in the next few weeks. But she said that he was unhappy about some of
his mother's writings about her trip.
In one essay, Galleymore asked for others to appreciate that the soldiers
are in a dilemma, "caught in a military culture that encourages the numbing of
most emotions but anger. Whip up enough anger in young men emotionally
isolated, denied friends, family, lovers, even civilians clothes, physically
exhaust them, nourish them inadequately, expose them to extreme temperatures
and violent behavior, confine them to base and portray everyone else as
murderous and you create impossible stress."
Nick told his mother that wasn't his experience. She doesn't know how
they'll get along when he returns.
"I don't know if he hasn't been responding to my e-mails because he can't,
or because of something else," Galleymore said.
Even after meeting halfway around the world, Galleymore's relationship
with her son is in some ways as complicated as it was before he left. But she
knows they'll eventually understand each other; they're mother and child. She
hopes that Americans eventually achieve the same with Iraqis.
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle