Sunday, July 30, 2006

War Protester Carlos Arredondo Speaks in San Diego

Set Himself on Fire in Marine Van After Son Died in Iraq


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The over 2,500 U.S. servicemembers who have died so far in the Iraq war all had family members who mourned them, but few have been as traumatized by their grief — or have expressed it in such a physically and emotionally intense way — as Carlos Arredondo, who came to San Diego July 8 to share his story. The day Carlos learned of his son Alexander’s death, August 25, 2004, was also Carlos’s birthday, and when he saw the U.S. Marine van pull up in front of his home in the Boston suburb of Holyoke, Massachusetts, his first assumption was that Alexander had managed to get leave to come home briefly and join his dad for his birthday.

When he learned the truth — that Alexander had been killed in combat — Carlos freaked out. At first he got a hammer from his garage and tried to attack the van. Then he used his cell phone to call the recruiter who’d signed Alexander up, and the recruiter hung up on him twice. Then he took a can of gasoline and a torch from his garage and approached the Marine van, asking its occupants to leave. When they didn’t, Carlos broke into the van with a hammer, poured the gasoline all over its interior, and then used the torch to set it — and himself — on fire.

“He was burned over 26 percent of his body,” Carlos’s wife, Melida Arredondo, told the audience of over 100 at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest June 8. “There was his face, neck, left arm, both hands and his feet. The first thing the doctors told me — they’re such optimists — was, ‘He’s never going to walk again.’” His doctors wanted to give him major skin grafts, but instead Carlos insisted on going to his son’s funeral even though he had to be carried to it on a stretcher. Carlos eventually recovered fully — though there are still burn scars on his body — and he and Melida credit the emotional impact of attending his son’s funeral, wake and mass with energizing him enough to heal spontaneously.

Today Carlos Arredondo is an anti-war activist with the Gold Star Families for Peace, an organization of opponents to the Iraq war who have lost family members to it headed by Cindy Sheehan, who made national headlines last year when she camped outside President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas and demanded a direct explanation from Bush as to what was the “noble cause” for which her son Casey died. Carlos joined her at “Camp Casey” in Crawford last year and plans, if he can raise the money, to do so again this year.

Carlos Arredondo was born in Costa Rica in 1960. Two years later, his parents took him to an event that, despite his age, he remembered vividly: President Kennedy came to Costa Rica as part of his tour through Latin America to announce the Alliance for Progress. “Since that day,” Carlos said, “we have been very good in our appreciation for the American people, the way they have given us a hand, the way they have been there for us. We always look up to them, and there are still a lot of good American people. Just remember that, please.”

In 1979, Carlos decided to emigrate to the U.S. He was undocumented and the route here from Costa Rica would take him through Nicaragua in the middle of the revolution between the Sandinistas and the Somoza regime they were trying to replace, but he went anyway, crossing the border at Nogales, Arizona. Later he acquired legal residency by agreeing to testify against the coyotes — smugglers — who exploit undocumented immigrants. Melida, also a Latina but born in the U.S., is Carlos’s second wife — his first wife was the mother of Alexander and his brother Brian — and at the July 8 meeting she did much of the talking for the family because of her stronger command of English.

Once the initial wounds — physical and emotional — started to heal, Carlos Arredondo responded to his son’s death much the way local activist Fernando Suárez del Solár, North County resident and immigrant from Tijuana who lost his son in the early months of the war, did. Like Suárez, Carlos focused much of his attention on the slimy, deceitful practices used by military recruiters to ensnare young men — especially poor young men of color — into joining the service. Also like Suárez, Carlos formed a scholarship fund to raise money so people in his community will have an alternative to the military to finance their college education. (Suárez was at the meeting with the Arredondos but had to leave early due to illness.)

Carlos recalled all too well how he heard the news that Alexander had joined the Marines in the first place. “I went, ‘Oh, my God. Oh, no, Alex. Oh, no. Why did you do that?’ In 1980, when I came to America, I was in front of a TV and then suddenly they were showing this explosion in Beirut, and there were almost 270 Marines who got killed in a single bomb at the headquarters of the Marines in Beirut. I never forgot that. I never got over seeing all those Marines … and I didn’t want my son to get killed. I said, ‘Honest, I don’t want you to come home in a body bag.’ He said, ‘Dad, don’t worry. We’re not at war.’”

According to Carlos, Alex told him that the reason he’d joined the Marines was because he didn’t want his father to have to take out a second mortgage on his house to finance his college education. “The way they did this to him was by offering him a $10,000 bonus and a $50,000 scholarship,” Carlos recalled. “ My son was only 16, and they were already seducing him.”

Alex joined the Marines in 2001 and was still in basic training when the September 11 attacks occurred. According to Melida Arredondo, Alex wrote them from boot camp in 2002 and said, “‘Please send information about Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, I know nothing about it, and they keep talking about it here at Parris Island.’ Keep in mind, this is August of 2002. No war has been declared, yet they’re talking about it at Parris Island.”

Carlos and Melida Arredondo spoke at the Joyce Beers Center against a backdrop of various photos and props with which they travel the country to build opposition to the war and awareness of its toll in human life. The main item is a full-size coffin with two boots mounted on top. There is also a set of blow-ups of photos from Alex’s life, ranging from childhood pictures of Alex with his brother Brian — who, much to Carlos’s horror, has also enlisted in the Marines — to a picture of Alex’s body in an open casket.

“I’m very lucky, in a way, that [my son] had an open casket,” Carlos explained. “This is a picture most other Gold Star Families members cannot have, because their sons and daughters died in explosions and a lot of these families cannot bear to see those pictures. But a lot of the families I’ve met before, when they see [Alex’s] picture, they pretty much take it personally. They’re seeing their sons’ and daughters’ faces, and they are very grateful for seeing that picture.”

Carlos’s personal priorities these days are to tour the country with his story and his display, get it seen by as many people as possible — including Marines at bases like Camp Pendleton — challenge the lies told by military recruiters and raise money for the scholarship fund. He’s also got another goal: to become a U.S. citizen. Paul Vauchelet, one of the organizers of the event at the Joyce Beers Center, asked people in attendance to write letters to Congress asking that they push for Carlos to be granted citizenship. He’s already got Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy on board, but he needs more support. Still, he’s grateful for the public reaction he’s received already — which he credits with keeping him from being prosecuted and imprisoned for burning the Marine van.

“I thought I would end up in one of those places for being an immigrant, for doing this to the government,” Carlos said.” Years ago they used to kill people for doing that, or put them in the war, or shoot them. I knew that. I saw a lot of movies, and I thought that was what would happen to me. I was worried that perhaps I was going to be in one of those foreign zoos, you know? But thank God, you know, what happened here is that a lot of the American people stood up for me, made a lot of phone calls, sent a lot of e-mails to the police station in Holyoke, to the politicos in Holyoke, and they didn’t allow this. And this didn’t happen because a lot of people stood up to help me. That’s why I’m free today, because a lot of people stood up.”