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2004 soa events draw more protesters than ever { December 10 2004 }

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Issue Date: December 10, 2004

SOA events draw more protesters than ever
Labor caucus, nonviolence training, and speaker mourns son killed in Iraq

Columbus, Ga.

In 1990, brother veterans Charlie and Patrick Liteky joined Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois in an act of civil disobedience at Fort Benning, Ga., home of the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas (SOA). All three were sentenced to prison for their actions that November day, the first anniversary of the massacre in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter.

That day also marked the beginning of a campaign by Bourgeois, a U.S. Navy veteran and former missionary in Latin America, to close the school that has trained scores of Latin American soldiers, many of whom were later charged with gross human rights violations in their native countries. Twenty-one of the soldiers implicated in the murders of the six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter had attended the SOA.

This November, Bourgeois and 8,000 to 15,000 others, depending on who was estimating, gathered at the gates of Fort Benning here over two days for the 14th annual protest that draws people from throughout the country to oppose the school that has been renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

Bourgeois founded SOA Watch, a group with offices in Washington and in the small apartment Bourgeois rents just outside Fort Benning’s south gate. While SOA Watch started with the mission to close the SOA, the annual gathering has evolved into a movement representing broad opposition to elements of U.S. foreign policy.

SOA Watch communications coordinator Christy Pardew spent most of the weekend of Nov. 20 and 21 setting up news conferences for Martin Sheen, Susan Sarandon and other protesters. Pardew, one of an enthusiastic group of young activists who have signed on to work with SOA Watch, said this year’s gathering drew more than 10,000 on the first day, a record. She said the annual presence is attracting a more diverse crowd.

“This space is becoming a real convergence of people who are working on many issues,” Pardew said, noting that 25 artists showed up in Columbus a week early to prepare for a huge puppet show that involved hundreds of participants in what Pardew called “political art.” The parade of colorful and unusual handmade puppets has become one of the highlights of the weekend.

Dozens of speakers, poets and musicians took the stage during the two days, and the topics addressed went far beyond Latin America. The list of activities began Friday morning and ran through Sunday night when more than 200 people stood vigil outside the Muscogee County Jail, where 15 people were held overnight for trespassing onto Fort Benning during Sunday’s traditional mock funeral procession. During the procession, the names of hundreds of Latin American martyrs are sung aloud in a litany as thousands, most carrying a white wooden cross marked with the name of a Latin American martyr, march up and down the road that leads to Fort Benning. After each name, the crowd responds, “Presente,” meaning present.

The weekend included a labor caucus, nonviolence training, open houses by various progressive groups, a Progressive Catholic Forum that covered topics such as women’s ordination and married priests, screenings of several documentary films, a full slate of programs by the Jesuits called the Ignatian Family Teach-in, and a benefit concert, to name just a few.

One of the weekend’s most moving speakers was Pennsylvania mother Celeste Zappala, whose son, Sherwood Baker, 30, was a National Guard soldier killed in a Baghdad explosion the morning of April 26.

Zappala said her son “became the 720th American soldier to die in the colossal miscalculation called the war in Iraq. When we buried Sherwood in Wilkes Barre on May 4, I knelt beside his casket, and I vowed to him, ‘I will not be quiet,’ and with God’s help I will not be broken. I will speak the truth for him. And we all know the truth, don’t we? This war is a disaster.”

In an interview with NCR, Zappala, a member of First United Methodist Church in Germantown, Pa., said her son, who left behind a wife and 10-year-old son, joined the Pennsylvania National Guard in 1997 to supplement his income and pay off his student loans. After 9/11, Zappala said, she started to worry.

“I knew we were going to go to war with somebody, and I was worried for Sherwood,” she said.

Baker tried to reassure his mother. “He used to say to me, ‘Mom, don’t worry. Nobody in the National Guard has been lost in combat since 1945. Don’t worry about it. Don’t think about it.’ He left the sixth of March. On April 26 he was dead.”

Baker’s assignment in Baghdad was on a team looking for those elusive weapons of mass destruction, Zappala said. The exact cause of the explosion that killed her son is not known. “It’s Iraq. These things happen all the time. Things blow up everywhere all the time.

“One thing that gives me comfort is as far as I know, he didn’t shoot or hurt anybody and nobody shot at him. His soul is not stained.”

After Baker’s death, Zappala decided early on that she and her family would speak out.

“I started talking to media people right away,” she said. “I wasn’t going to let anybody co-opt this. I wasn’t going to let them tell me that this was a noble cause.”

Zappala, who is a member of Military Families Speak Out, said many people grope for words to comfort her.

“People tell me he died avenging 9/11, and I say, ‘You have no idea what you’re talking about. Vengeance is not part of this child’s moral vocabulary.’ ”

Her two surviving sons, Dante 29, and Raphael 26, have also taken up the peace cause.

With a police helicopter hovering overhead, drowning out the speakers, Zappala admitted that her peace work had become her life’s passion. “We’re just doing everything we can,” she said. “It’s a compulsion. I made a promise. I vowed to Sherwood I wasn’t going to be quiet.”

SOA Watch organizers said this year’s gathering included a special effort to include the voices of those who had survived torture at the hands of former SOA students.

Former University of El Salvador professor Carlos Mauricio told of being abducted in June 1983 and beaten and tortured for two weeks at the National Police Headquarters in San Salvador.

“Every single night that I spent in that place I was tortured and I heard other prisoners being tortured,” Mauricio said. “I heard people being given electroshocks. I heard people being asphyxiated. I heard women being raped, and I heard the screams of the people under torture.”

Now a teacher in a San Francisco high school, Mauricio, 49, traveled to Columbus as part of a bus caravan of torture survivors. Last year, Mauricio won a lawsuit against two Salvadoran generals now living in the United States who were responsible for his torture.

While being tortured, Mauricio said he was always blindfolded and handcuffed, and he was deprived of sleep, food and water, torture tactics he said are being used today by the U.S. military.

“What happened in Latin America ... now is happening in Iraq,” he said. “That is torture by the book.”

West Point graduate and former Army officer Laura Slattery crossed the line at the SOA in 2002 and went to prison for 90 days. As Buddhist drums sounded in the background, Slattery spoke in front of the fence she had crossed two years earlier.

Slattery said there has still been no accountability from the U.S. military regarding the field manuals once used at the SOA that “advocated torture, blackmail and extrajudicial killing. I want some accountability.”

Marcela Poffald, 18, made the trip to Columbus with two busloads of students from Oberlin College in Ohio. A first generation U.S. citizen from Indiana, Poffald’s parents fled from Chile during the U.S.-backed coup that led to the killings of thousands of Chileans.

Poffald said she learned about her family history as a young child.

“I had to have explained to me why my parents moved from the country they loved,” she said. “My uncle was tortured. My father was tortured and all their high school friends disappeared, so I feel a very personal obligation to be here.”

Patrick O’Neill is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C.

Army tries silence at the gate
On the 15th anniversary of the SOA Watch gathering in Columbus, Ga., the U.S. Army tried a new twist. Unlike previous years when high-level officers and other Pentagon PR reps publicly responded to criticism of the renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, this year no one from the military granted interviews at the Fort Benning’s south gate.

“The Army previously held news conferences to deny protesters’ accusations,” stated a report in the Nov. 22 edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “This year, no response was issued.”

The Army did, however, lend its support to the simultaneously held “God Bless Fort Benning” rally outside the Columbus Civic Center Nov. 20, a few miles from the SOA Watch rally. A Black Hawk helicopter landed nearby, and the crowd stirred around to gawk at the chopper. A Bradley infantry fighting vehicle and a Stryker infantry carrier were also on display. Fort Benning commander, Brig. Gen. Ben Freakley addressed the “God Bless Fort Benning” rally, which drew a crowd estimated at about 5,000, most of them uniformed soldiers from the post.

Freakley’s comments at the rally were brief, said Ft. Benning public affairs officer Rich McDowell. Freakley thanked the organizers of the God Bless Fort Benning rally, and said: “It’s especially important to show our support for our soldiers who are training for war.”

-- NCR staff

National Catholic Reporter, December 10, 2004

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