Delegation that includes family members of soldiers killed in Iraq reaches out to the occupied country.
By Camille T. Taiara
OCT. 13 was a day like so many others in Watsonville: warm, sunny, tranquil. But it was a day that will be forever emblazoned in Amalia Avila's memory. It was the day three uniformed Marines walked up to her front door, sat down in the living room adorned with family photos, took her hand, and broke the news that her eldest son, Lance Cpl. Victor Gonzalez, had been killed.
The young man's life was cut short by a roadside mortar just five weeks after his division had arrived in Iraq. He died in a faraway desert at the tender age of 19 – 1 of almost 1,400 U.S. soldiers so far who'll never make it home.
A couple of months later, Avila – a travel agent and mother of four – embarked on her own kind of trip to the Middle East, as part of a Families for Peace delegation of 14 people organized by Global Exchange, Code Pink, Middle East Children's Alliance, and other antiwar groups.
Four participants had lost sons in the war; others had lost loved ones as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Their mission was to deliver $500,000 worth of medical supplies and other humanitarian aid, and more than $100,000 in cash donations, to the tens of thousands of Fallujah residents living in refugee camps in the wake of a U.S. military offensive on the city.
"I wanted to know where [Victor] had been; I wanted to imagine what he'd lived during his last days," Avila told the Bay Guardian in her native Spanish, adding that, although she had never supported the war, she also wished to help complete the mission her son had thought he'd begun by offering help to a deplorably oppressed people.
"The moment Patrick was killed, I knew I had to go to Iraq," concurred Nadia McCaffrey, who gained notoriety for allowing the media to view her son's flag-draped coffin as it arrived at Sacramento International Airport in late June – in open violation of President George W. Bush's ban on such coverage.
McCaffrey's son, Sgt. Patrick Ryan McCaffrey, was a 34-year-old Bay Area native, a husband, and a father of two who'd signed up with the National Guard the day after the Sept. 11 attacks. He was killed near Balad, about 40 miles north of Baghdad, just three months after arriving in Iraq in late March – his body ridden by bullets from enemy fire that tore through his protective vest. He was McCaffrey's only son.
Patrick "would ask us to send shoes, clothes, Gatorade" for the Iraqi children struggling to survive on the outskirts of Camp Anaconda, where he was stationed with the 579th Engineer Battalion, McCaffrey told us.
"The last photo of Patrick was taken 40 minutes before his death. He was grinning, holding a bunch of white flowers given to him by some of the children. They'd become very much a part of his life – the highlight of his life. He always talked about the children there.... He loved the everyday people of Iraq, the people who work the land," she said, adding that he – like most U.S. soldiers – had quickly become disillusioned with the war.
Avila, McCaffrey, and the rest of the delegation arrived in Amman, Jordan, Dec. 27 but never made it to Iraq as planned. It was just too dangerous. Jordanian military police barred them from visiting refugee camps along the border – allowing them only to speak with some children outside the Ruwayshid camp.
But the delegation did get to meet with Iraqi doctors, humanitarian aid workers with Iraq Emergency Relief, and other Iraqis who risked their lives traveling to Jordan to meet them, share their stories, and retrieve the badly needed aid. The delegates returned home one week later, on Jan. 2.
"There are a lot of horror stories," McCaffrey said.
One young Iraqi woman, too ashamed to show her face, recounted being "raped time after time" by U.S. soldiers or contractors in one of numerous underground prisons that was "a carbon copy of Abu Ghraib," McCaffrey said. Limited accounts of rapes by U.S. personnel have appeared in a variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Times and the Guardian of London. The Iraqis told the delegation that such rapes are more common than Americans have been led to believe. Others spoke of family members – civilians – shot and killed for no reason. Some told of helping U.S. soldiers who'd gone AWOL to escape.
"We need to build a bridge of understanding between the Iraqi and American people," McCaffrey said. "Our face is the face of American people, and they don't know that there.... And we need to bring back the truth to the American people, who are not aware of what's really going on."
Now Avila has become a grassroots organizer of sorts – telling her son's story as well as those of the Iraqis whom she'd met and, most of all, speaking with other families in her community.
McCaffrey, founder of Angelstaff (www.angelstaff.org), a group of volunteers who provide companionship and help to the terminally ill, said she plans to fly to Baghdad this spring with the goal of setting up a safe house for Iraqi women and children refugees.
"This is an unjust war, without reason, and the [U.S.] government lied to my son," Avila said. "They're continuing to lie to the new soldiers they're recruiting.... I've begun talking to other families here, telling them that Iraqis aren't bad. I've been speaking with mothers so that they involve themselves more in their sons' decisions."
"They deceived my son," she continued. "But they can't fool me."
To contribute, send donations payable to "Iraq Relief" to Global Exchange, 2017 Mission St., Ste. 303, S.F., CA 94110, or go to www.codepinkalert.org (the site also contains firsthand accounts of the delegates' experiences and conversations with Iraqis).
E-mail Camille T. Taiara