Tuesday, November 27, 2007

My journey to Fort Benning, Georgia. Part one.

Earlier this month I volunteered as a Spanish interpreter at the annual vigil to close the School of the Americas, at Fort Benning, Georgia. The SOA, officially renamed the Western Hempisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, is an American military academy known to have trained many Latin American dictators, officers and soldiers responsible for massacres, torture, assassination, and other forms of "dirty warfare." Each November, a vigil outside the gates of Ft. Bennning marks the 1989 assassination of six American priests in El Salvador, their housekeeper, and her 14-year-old daughter. The vigil, started by Father Roy Bourgeois and a handful of others in 1990, has grown exponentially, to include 25,000 participants this year.


In every airport – Seattle, St. Louis, Dallas, Atlanta – soldiers walk alone, dressed in desert fatigues and carrying rucksacks. I happen to sit next to one on the flight from St. Louis to Atlanta, dressed in civilian clothes. He’s a member of the National Guard, and spent two years in Iraq, securing a section of Baghdad’s Green Zone, right at its edge. He shows me photos of himself and his buddies in sniper position atop high-rises, and posing with Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and other bigwigs. Other photos are of car bomb scenes. Iraqis are such a resilient people, he tells me, that once the debris is removed, people go back to their regular business. “If a car bomb exploded in Westlake Plaza, no one would come back for a long time.”

In another photo, a man stands in a jail cell, his hands on the bars, his eyes looking into the camera. His graying hair and beard are getting long, but he looks well kept, and has a warm smile, despite everything. He looks to me like an uncle I haven’t met. The caption reads simply reads “Card_Guy,” meaning he is one of the men most wanted by the U.S., whose pictures were distributed to soldiers as decks of playing cards. I wonder who he is, what Bush & Co. say he did, and how much of that is true. Then my seatmate closes his laptop and says it’s the end of the show, that I wouldn’t want to see the photos lower down the list, of people with their heads blown off. "Of U.S. soldiers?" I ask. "God no," he says, incredulous. "I would never take photos like that."

I ask where he’s going. “To Benning, to see my little brother graduate from basic training.” I tell him I’m headed to Fort Benning, too. He asks about the white arm band I’m wearing. I explain it has written the name and age of someone killed by a graduate of the School of the Americas. He looks confused a moment and then his face changes, hardens a little, but we keep talking. I explain to him about the SOA, the training manuals leaked to the media detailing lessons in counter-insurgency: torture, assassination of civilians, targeting priests, students, union members. “War is a very nasty business,” he says, “by definition.” He doesn’t explicity condone such tactics, but he doesn’t condemn them either.

Two years in Iraq marked him. When he returned to his family, his eight year old daughter always wanted to be with him, to hang her arms around him, to sit on his lap. He asked his wife to keep her away from him. About the same time, the nightmares began and he began drinking heavily. “Luckily I caught myself before it got too bad, went and got some help from the V.A.” Later he starts to rant a bit about politicians, saying taxes are too high, and that if people need drug treatment or the like, they should pay for it themselves.

I am thankful this man chooses to speak so openly with me about his own experiences despite our political differences; he says he feels the same. When we transfer to the 30-seat plane that takes us from St. Louis to Atlanta, I hear him share a few words with a young female soldier already buckled in, her hands gripping the armrests, staring at the seat in front of her. “You coming or going?” he asks. I don’t hear her reply, but he pats her on the shoulder and says, “You take good care, now.”


At the Denny’s on Macon Road, in Columbus, Georgia, a group of peacenik Spanish interpreters gathers to discuss how we are going to tackle the weekend of workshops and rally speeches. At the two nearest tables sit military families. At each one, a young man wears fatigues and sits next to his girlfriend, along with parents and siblings, eating burgers and salads and sandwiches. One of the soldiers looks barely 18 years old. He sips a chocolate milkshake and the waitress calls him “sweetie.” Both families are quiet in their celebrations.


We are definitely in a Southern military town. Almost every block and shopping center along the broad suburban avenues has a military surplus store, a tattoo parlor, a strip club, or all of the above. Even the Cannon Brewpub, a hip hangout spot in the polished Uptown district, displays Dixie flags among its eclectic décor. I am constantly reminded I am a stranger here by people’s rich Southern accents. To my ears, some sound tinny and nasal, but most voices like cornbread dipped in honey-butter.


The interpreter team is about half people who I worked with last year, half new to me. There’s the Nicaraguan man whose humor sometimes has a bite. The DC tenant organizer, young and sharp. Her housemate, a silver-haired Colombian woman who is as warm as a winter wool blanket. Her friend, a former nun, all smiles. Both work for a community clinic in the DC area. Then there’s the gringo who married a Puerto Rican and speaks fantastic Spanish, often quoting literature and off-color jokes, and the fabulous, funny gay Mexican-American man from the historic Highlander School. We all quickly establish a good rapport. It’s easy to do, because we have a lot in common. Everyone is charming and ready to work hard all weekend.


For the second year running, I celebrate my birthday the night before the Vigil, the centerpiece of the weekend gathering. We take turns buying round of drinks, but mostly I drink for free. I never knew that shots of Patrón Silver tequila went down so smoothly. I have quite a few of those. Later the gay man and the young woman from DC and I go another bar and and the conversation goes deeper, on topics personal and political. We sip Mexican beer, dance to Michael Jackson songs, and improvise our own karaoke to “Bohemian Rhapsody.”


At the end of the weekend, the interpreter who is a former nun gives me a handful of “goals for 2008” on colored construction paper, the size of raffle tickets. Each has a calligraphied message in Spanish, such as:

To strengthen my sense of humor, since Satan fell to Hell for being annoying!

Spread the Word: We need more extremists: extremists of love (-Martin Luther King).

To be the loyal memory of those who gave their lives for their people.

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