Juan Torres places a cross next to his son' photograph at "camp casey" in Crawford, Texas.

Witnesses to War

Military families bring the cost of war to students

BY Phoebe Connelly

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At 7:45 am on the second day of school, Karen Meredith, a founding member of Gold Star Families For Peace, sat in front of a senior sociology class at Thomas Kelly High School on Chicago’s south side. “I am not anti-military, my son was a fourth generation army officer,” she told the class. “But I believe that this administration is not using the military in a way many of us in this country think they should.”

The visit was part of the “Bring Them Home Now Tour,” a combined effort of Gold Star Families for Peace, Military Families Speak Out, Iraq Vets Against the War and Veterans For Peace that spent the end of August and early September crossing the country.

The group advocates immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq and demands that elected officials account for starting and supporting an unsubstantiated war.

The tour began in Crawford, Texas, at “Camp Casey”–the site of Cindy Sheehan’s vigil. In three contingents–north, central, and south–the tour wended its way to Washington, D.C., for the September 24–26 mobilization sponsored by United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ). At Kelly High School, three parents of slain soldiers, Al Zappala, Karen Meredith and Juan Torres, gave presentations. Each went to a different classroom, speaking to the first three classes of the day.

Karen Meredith, mother of Sgt. Ken Ballard, spoke quietly, at times nearly drowned out by the cars passing in the street below. “When he was killed I asked the government for a photo of his body being returned,” Meredith said. “You may not know but the government doesn’t let us see the caskets coming home. This administration does not want us to see that because they don’t want us to see the human cost of war. If we see these caskets every night, whether we know the person or not, we can still see what is happening to this country: We’re losing children.”

“Ken was the 89th soldier from Iraq to be buried at Arlington,” she said. “Some friends of mine called me yesterday, they were at Arlington [and] they said [the government] was clearing a whole new area–so they know there are more causalities to come.”

The Gold Star Families’ efforts are yet again revealing a truth that has haunted the U.S. military for decades: recruitment tactics often focus on low-income minority students to whom society offers few other options.

Al Zappala’s son, Sgt. Sherwood Baker, was killed while guarding a team in search of WMDs in Iraq. After telling the story of his son’s death, Zappala asked the students to consider what military recruiters offered them. “I know you have recruiters coming in here. … I’m not saying everything they tell you is not true. But, like everything else, listen to what they say, but you have to make up your own mind,” he said. “You see the recruiters, they come to schools like this, they don’t come to schools in the suburbs, ‘cause those kids aren’t going to go in no army. They know you guys don’t have as many options as they have, so this is where they come.”

Zappala was joined in the second class by Cody Camacho, a veteran of the Iraq war from Chicago. The kids noticeably sat up in the presence of someone closer to their own age. “I don’t know what else to tell you except it is a mess,” Camacho said. “You have to realize that you all are the ones that are the boss. These politicians have no strength without your voice and their goal is to keep everyone ignorant and keep them poor.”

Juan Torres, a Chicago resident whose son, Juan Manuel Torres, was killed in Afghanistan, spoke to Spanish-speaking classes about his son’s death and his family’s subsequent sorrow. Torres and his family emigrated from Argentina to the United States. Having lost a son, he says he feels a duty to educate other parents about military recruiters. When he was finished speaking the class broke into applause.

Michael McConnell, the Great Lakes regional director of the American Friends Service Committee, helped organize the Chicago stop of the Bring Them Home Tour.

“In the past military families have had a code of silence,” McConnell says. “They have broken that code and said what they really think about the lack of protection for their families and the fact that the war has not ever been justified. When the history of the opposition to the Iraq war is written military families will be noted as one of the main forces that turned the tide against the war. They are the credible witnesses to the cost of the war.”

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Phoebe Connelly, a former managing editor at In These Times, is Web Editor at The American Prospect.

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