Carlos Arredondo, a native Costa Rican, stands in a parking lot of a Holiday Inn in Portland, Maine, next to his green Nissan pickup truck. The truck, its tailgate folded down, carries a flag-draped coffin and is adorned with pictures of his son, Lance Cpl. Alexander S. Arredondo, 20, a Marine killed in Iraq in 2004. The truck and a trailer he pulls with it have become a mobile shrine to his boy. He drives around the country, with the aid of donations, evoking a mixture of sympathy and hostility. There are white crosses with the names of other boys killed in the war. Combat boots are nailed to the side of the display. There is a wheelchair, covered in colored ribbons, fixed to the roof of the cab. There is Alex's military uniform and boots, poster-size pictures of the young Marine shown on the streets of Najaf, in his formal Marine portrait, and then lying, his hands folded in white gloves, in his coffin. A metal sign on the back of the truck bears a gold star and reads: "USMC L/CPL ALEXANDER S. ARREDONDO."
"This is what happens every week to some family in America," says Carlos. "This is what war does. And this is the grief and pain the government does not want people to see."
Alex, from a working-class immigrant family, was lured into the military a month before Sept. 11, 2001. The Marine recruiters made the usual appeals to patriotism, promised that he would be trained for a career, go to college and become a man. They included a $10,000 sign-on bonus. Alex was in the Marine units that invaded Iraq. His father, chained to the news reports, listening to the radio and two televisions at the same time, was increasingly distraught. "I hear nothing about my son for days and days," he says. "It was too much, too much, too much for parents."
Alex, in August 2004, was back in Iraq for a second tour. In one of his last phone calls, Alex told him: "Dad, I call you because, to say, you know, we've been fighting for many, many days already, and I want to tell you that I love you and I don't want you to forget me." His father answered: "Of course I love you, and I don't want-I never forget you." The last message the family received was an e-mail around that time which read: "Watch the news online. Check the news, and tell everyone that I love them."
Twenty days later, on Aug. 25, a U.S. government van pulled up in front of Carlos' home in Hollywood, Fla. It was Carlos' 44th birthday and he was expecting a birthday call from Alex. "I saw the van and thought maybe Alex had come home to surprise me for my birthday or maybe they were coming to recruit my other son, Brian," he says. Three Marine officers climbed out of the van. One asked, "Are you Carlos Arredondo?" He answered "yes."
"I'm sorry, we're here to notify you about the death of Lance Cpl. Arredondo," one of the officers told him. Alex was the 968th soldier or Marine to be killed in the Iraq war.
"I tried to process this in my head," Carlos says. "I never hear that. I remember how my body felt. I got a rush of blood to my body. I felt like it's the worst thing in my life. It is my worst fear. I could not believe what they were telling me."
Carlos turned and ran into the house to find his mother, who was in the kitchen making him a birthday cake. "I cried, ‘Mama! Mama! They are telling me Alex got killed! Alex got killed! They kill Alex! They kill Alex! They kill Alex!" His mother crumbled in grief. Carlos went to the large picture of his son in the living room and held it. Carlos asked the Marines to leave several times over the next 20 minutes, but the Marines refused, saying they had to wait for his wife. "I did this because I was in denial. I think if they leave none of this will happen." Crazed and distraught with grief, the father went into his garage and took out five gallons of gasoline and a propane torch. He walked past the three Marines in their dress blues and began to smash the windows of the government van with a hammer.
"I went into the van," he says. "I poured gasoline on the seats. I pour gasoline on the floor and in the gas tank. I was, like, looking for my son. I was screaming and yelling for him. I remember that one day he left in a van and now he's not there. I destroy everything. The pain I feel is the pain of what I learned from war. I was wearing only socks and no shoes. I was wearing shorts. The fumes were powerful and I could not breathe no more, even though I broke the windows."
As Carlos stepped out of the van, he ignited the propane torch inside the vehicle. It started a fire that "threw me from the driver's seat backwards onto the ground." His clothes caught fire. It felt "like thousands of needles stabbing into my body." He ran across the street and fell onto the grass. His mother followed him and pulled off his shirt and socks, which were on fire, as he screamed "Mama! Mama! My feet are burning! My feet are burning!" The Marines dragged him away and he remembers one of them saying, "The van is going to blow! The van is going to blow!" The van erupted in a fireball and the rush of hot air, he says, swept over him. The Marines called a fire truck and an ambulance. Carlos sustained second- and third-degree burns over 26 percent of his body. As I talk to him in the Portland parking lot he shows me the burn scars on his legs. The government chose not to prosecute him.
"I wake up in the hospital two days later and I was tied with tubes in my mouth," he says. "When they take the tubes out I say, ‘I want to be with my son. I want to be with my son.' Somebody was telling me my son had died. I get very emotional. I kept saying ‘I want to be with my son' and they think I want to commit suicide."
He had no health insurance. His medical bills soon climbed to $55,000. On Sept. 2, 2004, Carlos, transported in a stretcher, attended his son's wake at the Rodgers Funeral Home in Jamaica Plain, Mass. He lifted himself, with the help of those around him, from his stretcher, and when he reached his son's open casket he kissed his child. "I held his head and when I put my hands in the back of his head I felt the huge hole where the sniper bullet had come out," he says. "I climbed into the casket. I lay on top of my son. I apologized to him because I did not do enough to avoid this."
Arredondo began to collect items that memorialized his son's life. He tacked them to his truck. A funeral home in Boston donated a casket to the display. He began to attend anti-war events, at times flying the American flag upside down to signal distress. He has taken his shrine to the Mall in Washington, D.C., and Times Square in New York City. He has traveled throughout the country presenting to the public a visual expression of death and grief. He has placed some of his son's favorite childhood toys and belongings in the coffin, including a soccer ball, a pair of shoes, a baseball and a Winnie the Pooh. The power of his images, which force onlookers to confront the fact that the essence of war is death, has angered some who prefer to keep war sanitized and wrapped in the patriotic slogans of glory, honor and heroism. Three years ago vandals defaced his son's gravestone.
"I don't speak," he says. "I show people war. I show them the caskets they are not allowed to see. If people don't see what war does they don't feel it. If they don't feel it they don't care."
Military recruiters, who often have offices in high schools, prey on young men like Alex, who was first approached when he was 16. They cater to their insecurities, their dreams and their economic deprivation. They promise them what the larger society denies them. Those of Latino descent and from divorced families, as Alex was, are especially vulnerable. Alex's brother Brian was approached by the military, which suggested that if he enlisted he could receive $60,000 in signing bonuses and more than $27,000 in payments for higher education. The proposed Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, is designed to give undocumented young people a chance at citizenship provided they attend college-not usually an option for poor, often poorly educated and undocumented Latino youths who are prohibited from receiving Pell grants-for at least two years, or enlist and serve in the military. The military helped author the pending act and is lobbying for it. Twelve percent of Army enlistees are Hispanic, and this percentage is expected to double by 2020 if the current rate of recruitment continues. And once they are recruited, these young men and women are trained to be killers, sent to wars that should never be fought and returned back to their families often traumatized and broken and sometimes dead.
Alex told Carlos in their last conversation there was heavy fighting in Najaf. Alex usually asked his father not to "forget" him, but now, increasingly in the final days of his life, another word was taking the place of forget. It was forgive. He felt his father should not forgive him for what he was doing in Iraq. He told his father, "Dad, I hope you are proud of what I'm doing. Don't forgive me, Dad." The sentence bewildered his father. "Oh my God, how can I forgive you? ... I love you, you're my son, very proud, you're my son."
"I thought, when he died, my God, he has killed somebody," Carlos says quietly as he readied for an anti-war march organized by Veterans for Peace. "He feels guilty. If he returned home his mind would be destroyed. His heart would be torn apart. It is not normal to kill. How can they do this? How can they take our children?"