Father Turns his Grief into Action
The United States is entering the fifth year of its violent, failed occupation of Iraq, longer than the U.S. was involved in World War II. Through the grimly deepening quagmire, a strengthening, pervasive U.S. anti-war movement is emerging. An increasingly powerful voice comes from soldiers and their families, turning grief into action. Take the Arredondo family.
On Aug. 25, 2004 -- Carlos Arredondo's 44th birthday -- a U.S. Marine van arrived outside his house. He thought that his son Alex had managed to come home from his second deployment to Iraq to surprise him. Instead, the Marines informed him that Alex had been killed in action in Najaf.
Carlos lost his mind. He asked, he begged, the Marines to leave. He pleaded. They didn't leave, so he ran to his garage and grabbed a hammer, gasoline and a blowtorch. He began pummeling the van. He climbed in, pouring the gasoline. His mother, distraught and wailing, tried to pull him from the van. The blowtorch accidentally sparked, and Carlos was blown from the van into the yard, in flames.
Then his wife, Melida, arrived. She saw her husband burning. Carlos' younger son, Brian, 16, in Bangor, Maine, saw the incident on television. Thatwas the day he learned that the brother he loved and emulated was dead.
Carlos suffered burns on more than one-quarter of his body. The physical healing was the easy part. It is the emotional healing that he pursues in his tireless and remarkable odyssey to end the war. To honor Alex's memory, he has been crisscrossing the country, from Capitol Hill to Crawford, Texas, pulling a flag-draped coffin. He calls it his public mourning: "I want the caskets coming home to be very public. The government doesn't want you to see them."
Carlos stopped for a few days this week in New York. He parked outside the military recruiting station in Times Square, where activists have established an "Endless" War Memorial. For six days, sunrise to sunset, hundreds of people are taking turns reading the names of the Iraq war dead -- all the dead whose names could be discovered. The roughly 3,200 U.S. military fatalities, the other "coalition" casualties, the journalists and the 7,733 Iraqi names they were able to find. The organizers point out that there are hundreds of unnamed dead Iraqis for each of the thousands they have gathered (based on the British medical journal Lancet study estimating more than 650,000 Iraqi dead).
The scene is surreal and unforgettable. Passers-by stop by the flag-draped coffin Carlos has rolled out of the back of his pickup truck. There are army boots of loved ones lost, and large photos of grieving Iraqi women and one of Alex in an open casket. This is all set against the massive video display atop the Times Square recruiting station. Among its slogans: "There is nothing on this green earth stronger than the U.S. Army." Above that, an even larger display promotes Fox News, Bill O'Reilly and flashing phrases such as "Gitmo justice." The famous Dow Jones news zipper runs its endless recitation of stock quotes and the daily count of dead and injured. A video ad for sunglasses flashes the words "Never Hide."
Carlos is heading next to Washington, D.C., to lead this weekend's march on the Pentagon.
As we part, Carlos shows me the latest recruiting letter sent to his son Brian. It contains a fake red, white and blue credit card with Brian's name on it. It says: "This is not a credit card. It is money in the bank." An earlier letter promises him a bonus of up to $20,000. "What can you do with $20,000? A new car? Pay off credit cards? Help your family? ... Remember the decisions you are making right now will have a huge impact on how the rest of your life turns out." Which is exactly why Carlos prays his surviving son will not join up.
Meanwhile, around the corner, each name being read was once a living, breathing, complex human being whose life was snuffed out as a result of this four-year-old war. Alongside the named dead are living people, like Carlos, following their conscience, making connections, building a movement, each day bringing the end of the war one day closer.
© 2007 Seattle Post-Intelligencer