Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, along with allies from various peace and justice organizations, congregated at the Woodbine Ecological Center in Sadalia, Colorado last month to attend the 2014 IVAW National Convention and commemorate the 10th anniversary of the post-9/11-era anti-war veteran led movement. Ironically, this date fell on the week after the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War—a war that devastated Europe and was supposed to end all wars—and coincidentally at a time when the Obama Administration authorized another round of aerial attacks on the people of Iraq. This brought ill memories of the last war on the people of Iraq by U.S. forces, leaving many of the combat veterans attending with mixed feelings, self-reflection and, for some, sentiments of despair.
However, we veterans soon overcame these feelings with a rekindling of our commitment to organize, advocate, educate and work towards a demilitarized American foreign policy and to end the destructive nature of U.S. wars of aggression.
A critical part of building our movement, at a time of never-ending war, comes from the relationships we forge with international grassroots organizations and activists working to transform and challenge the imprint of U.S. militarism on the globe. We were lucky to be joined at our convention by a host of leaders from a broad swath of academic, movement and journalism backgrounds. Numbered among them was Dr. Sonia Santiago, founder and director of Madres Contra la Guerra—Mothers Against the War, an anti-war/anti-militarism organization based in Puerto Rico. I personally invited and involved Santiago, because I think audiences in the U.S. need to hear her story.
Santiago is a clinical psychologist with expertise in post traumatic stress disorder/syndrome, the spouse of a Vietnam War veteran and the mother of an Iraq War veteran. She is the screenwriter and developer of the film Madres Contra la Guerra and hosts a weekly TV and radio program in Puerto Rico. Santiago is dedicated to ending militarism worldwide, but more precisely ending militarism in her native island of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has provided bodies to fight in every U.S. wars of the 20th Century -and well into this new century, despite the territory having no say in political decision-making in Washington [Puerto Rico sends a non-voting Resident Commissioner to Washington. Puerto Rico’s Chief-of-State is President Barack Obama; however, Puerto Ricans residing in Puerto Rico are not allowed to vote in U.S. national elections].
MCG’s motto is ‘Motherhood is life and war is the antithesis of motherhood.” The workshop was entitled, “Militarism and PTSD in Puerto Rico.”
Madres Contra la Guerra conducts counter-recruitment actions, anti-war demonstrations, and public education about U.S. militarism in Puerto Rico and elsewhere and its destructive nature to the soldiers and to the people who are victimized by U.S. military behavior. They “support the troops” by demanding soldiers return home and by denouncing these needless and destructive wars. They provide services to soldiers and their families, such as legal rights advising, raise money for veterans in need, and link them to resources to get counseling, medical and mental health treatments.
Santiago has been politically active in fighting U.S. militarism en ‘la Isla’—in the island—since she was 17 years of age. At that young age she was among the thousands of protesters that participated in military draft card burnings as she stood against the conscription of young Boricua men bound to fight in the Vietnam War.
“Puerto Rican resistance to U.S. militarism was and is militant,” Santiago tells us. “During the Vietnam War, thousands of young people burned their registration cards. After many actions the Center for Reserve Officer Training, known as the ROTC, was taken off the University of Puerto Rico’s Rio Piedras campus.” She continued, “Madres participated in protests outside of military recruiting centers, making them move their stations inside shopping malls.” As part of Madre’s counter-recruitment campaign, “Madres Contra la Guerra educated parents, and Puerto Rican mothers specifically, to request that they do not allow military recruiters to have access to confidential information about their children between the ages of 16-25 years.” Santiago was referring to the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind Act (2001), which requires federal funding for education in exchange for military recruiter access to student’s information. Parents, however, may sign forms requesting that their children’s information be withheld from recruiters.
According to Pentagon data, this action led to 57 percent of Puerto Rico’s 10th, 11th and 12th graders to “opt out” from being contacted by military recruiters in 2007—the height of the Iraq War—barring recruiters from contacting 65,000 potential soldiers.
On Puerto Rico’s Colonial and Military Legacy
Santiago started her discussion with a brief account of the U.S./ Puerto Rico colonial relationship dating back to the Spanish-American War to more contemporary times, focusing on the militarization of the island by the U.S. military.
“On July 25, 1898, U.S. troops invaded Puerto Rico and implemented a military government, for 30 years prohibiting Spanish in schools. Hundreds of U.S. teachers were brought to teach, replacing Puerto Rican teachers. In 1917 U.S. citizenship was imposed on all Puerto Ricans. Those who refused citizenship were automatically ostracized,” Santiago affirmed. That same year the U.S. entered the First World War and was in desperate need of a large army. She continued, “Not coincidentally, that same year, 27,786 Puerto Rican men were recruited to fight in the First World War… More recently, ninety percent of the members of the Puerto Rican National Guard and Army Reserves in Puerto Rico have been in Iraq or Afghanistan, about 8,700 soldiers. Of those, there are about 1,650 maimed [soldiers who have sustained physical injuries].”
She also touched on the popular struggle to oust the Navy from the municipal island of Vieques, which had been bombarded by the U.S. Navy, 180 days a year, for over 60 years, using all kinds of ordinances, and testing all kinds of chemicals (depleted uranium included), delivered by air, land and sea, while having a permanent population sandwiched between the two military assets on each end of this small island.
At one time, Vieques had a population of about 12,000 or so. However, when the decision was made for the island to be used as a Naval bombing range, two thirds of the land was expropriated from the people living there who were either forcefully relocated to the center of the island, or relocated to the Puerto Rican mainland or the Virgin Islands. Vieques was viewed by the Navy as an indispensable training asset. For years it has been the site to rehearse such military operations ranging from the D-Day Invasion in Europe to the recent invasion of Iraq.
Today Vieques has a population of about 9,000. It is the municipality with the highest cancer rate in Puerto Rico. Many attribute this with six decades of chemical contaminants pounded on the small island by the U.S. Navy. Under popular pressure, the U.S. Navy finally withdrew from Vieques in 2003.
A person in the audience brought up the case of political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera. Santiago briefly told the story of his case, noting his 33 years of imprisonment in a U.S. jail, and the international campaign to free him, referring to him as our “Nelson Mandela.”
Santiago compiles a list of Puerto Ricans who have been killed during combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those who have died outside of theater but whose death may be attributed to the current conflicts. So far, she has 123 names of ‘Boricuas’ [a demonym attributed to Puerto Ricans or anything Puerto Rican-esque] posted on her MCG website.
“The real unemployment rate in Puerto Rico is 40%. The U.S. military uses the need to work to sell militarism to our youth. Wars are declared by the rich and fought by the poor. My son was a victim of this situation; being unemployed for 10 months, he enlisted in the military as a soldier on January 2001, in a desperate act, like thousands of other young people in search of work and study opportunities,” exclaimed Santiago, using her son’s case as an example in describing the economic situation in Puerto Rico. Like many in Puerto Rico and in the U.S., Santiago’s son was a college graduate, with excessive student loan debt, and unable to find work. He deployed to Iraq early in the war and after 16 months of extreme violence returned home with a condition of PTSD that has left him detached, paranoid and isolated from other people. “He wasn’t that way before he left to Iraq,” Santiago tells us.
Telling the Story of the Puerto Rican War Veteran
Santiago went on to inform her audience about the sorry state of the Veterans Affairs hospital in Puerto Rico. “There’s currently one VA hospital in Puerto Rico servicing about 200,000 U.S. military veterans in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.” The VA hospital in Puerto Rico does treat veterans suffering from PTSD; however, it does not have the capabilities to treat veterans suffering from Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). Veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury have to seek treatment in the U.S., meaning that their families would have to uproot and leave Puerto Rico in order for the veteran to continue care.
During the workshop, Santiago showed the film Madres Contra la Guerra and translated the stories of veterans appearing on the film to English for her audience. One of the Boricua veterans in the film was U.S. Navy seaman Pablo Paredes Burgos, who was scheduled to deploy to Iraq on the U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard on December 2004. Paredes Burgos refused to board his ship, becoming Puerto Rico’s first conscientious objector to the war in Iraq. For refusing to deploy, Paredes Burgos was sentenced to three months of hard labor by a military court followed by a discharge from the military on an Other Than Honorable condition. In his statement to the court, he stated: “What I submit to this court is that I am convinced that this war is illegal. If I am guilty of anything, it is my beliefs.”
Building Solidarity, Connecting Organizations
At the conclusion of the workshop I went around asking people about their thoughts on the discussion. “MCG work overlaps with IVAW work,” said IVAW Director of Development Joyce Wagner. “MCG applies direct service and organizing for social change. I really hope we can continue with this relationship and build relationships with other groups and people from other colonized places affected by militarism.” Joyce, a former Marine, works with civic peace organizations in Okinawa, Japan, which campaigns to evict U.S. military bases there, which are many and literally scattered across the whole island.
National Lawyers Guild member, Whitney Leeds, said the workshop was “fantastic.” She had traveled to Puerto Rico last year to attend the 76th NLG Convention hosted by the Colegio de Abogados -Lawyers’ College. It became obvious to her the presence of the colonial establishment in the Island as she described Puerto Rico as a “close knit community” having a unique homogeneous culture -different from what she’s observe in U.S. society- but being constantly reminded of the U.S. presence there.
“I knew about the issue with Vieques, but I didn’t know about the forced migration,” said Meejin Richart from the Center for Constitutional Rights. “She [Santiago] illustrated colonization as a process and illuminated the organization of resistance in Puerto Rico. She not only brought her voice to the panel, but also the voice of Puerto Rican war veterans via the movie she presented,” Richart expressed.
Later that evening, Santiago would joined Meejin and Joyce on a discussion panel with all Convention attendees about U.S. militarism and the negative impact it has on communities abroad. They talked about the altering cultural, economic, political and environmental effects that the nearly 1,000 U.S. bases and facilities in about 150 countries has on a local populations.
They liken these military enclaves in foreign countries to colonial settlements of American troops, sometimes accompanied by their families, and military contractors, at times displaying the familiar colonizer-colonized relationship with the host country. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that in many of these countries citizen movements have sprung up in opposition to these bases and facilities, and have mobilized to have them closed and see the troops leave. IVAW actively works to connect with these organizations.
Santiago ended her workshop with these words: “Motherhood generates life. War is the antithesis of motherhood. When we have children, we create to live, not to kill. We at Mothers Against War in Puerto Rico have the inescapable historical commitment and responsibility to preserve life, not just of our children’s, but of the thousands of innocent victims who we do not know and are killed in war.”