Anger and Valor: Iraq two years later

Cpl. Jesus Rivera returned from a seven-month tour of duty in

Last Saturday marked the two-year anniversary of the United
States’ invasion of Iraq, a conflict that has claimed the lives of
1,519 U.S. servicemen, cost American taxpayers more than $200
billion and deeply divided opinions at home and abroad.
Last Saturday marked the two-year anniversary of the United States’ invasion of Iraq, a conflict that has claimed the lives of 1,519 U.S. servicemen, cost American taxpayers more than $200 billion and deeply divided opinions at home and abroad.

March’s projected death count for U.S. forces will reach 35, according to Pentagon estimates, one of the lowest military death tolls for the nation in the last 13 months, but insurgent attacks continue to intensify against fledgling Iraqi forces, and 14 of the original 38 member nations have left the “coalition of the willing.”

In the South Valley, the last two years have brought the front lines home, as Gilroyans turned out by the thousands to mourn Jeramy Ailes, killed in the line of duty in November.

Before U.S. forces entered Iraq, former Indonesian ambassador Paul Wolfowitz, now President Bush’s top choice to head the World Bank, said soldiers would be welcomed as liberators, just as many of their grandfathers had been in France.

But two years of bloody conflict coupled with the White House’s admission that Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction have deeply divided national and local opinion on the war’s justification and on the prospects of winning the “War on Terror.”

In Santa Clara and San Benito counties, steadfast supporters of Iraqi involvement and opposition leaders who disagree with Bush’s plans for the Middle East confront one another weekly in sidewalk demonstrations, like the face-offs between Gilroy’s Women in Black protest group and Dottie Stewart, an ardent supporter of the troops who has become a local fixture bedecked in red, white and blue.

“I feel really strongly about the fact that freedom isn’t free,” said Stewart, who paced the corner of First and Monterey streets in a light drizzle on a recent Friday afternoon. “I think we’re doing the right thing, and I think those ink-stained fingers (of Iraqi voters) we saw a few weeks ago are proof of that.”

Stewart is on the corner, rain or shine, each Friday from 5pm to 6pm, and has been since just before 2004’s presidential elections. Across the street, a loosely organized group of women known as the Gilroy chapter of Women in Black, a peace movement founded by mothers in Israel and Palestine, has been demonstrating against violence the world over for three years now.

Both groups reflect national trends, as a growing number of Americans have come to disagree with Middle East policy. A CNN/Gallup poll conducted March 18 to 20 found supporters of the war in a narrow majority, with 51 percent of respondents claiming the United States did not make a mistake in invading Iraq. Forty-six percent felt the country had made a mistake, double the number who said the same thing in 2003.

“This is a peace issue,” said Alice Sousa, mother of seven and one of the founding members of Gilroy’s Women in Black. One of her grandsons recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq with the Army. “Obviously, at this point you don’t have to be a historian to know that war doesn’t work.”

Franz Schnider, a retired kindergarten teacher and social activist who has lived in Hollister since 1968, agrees.

“Killing people to show that killing people is wrong is not a good idea,” Schnider said.

But peace activists and Bush supporters may not be as far apart in their views as they think.

Both Sousa and Stewart are driven by their memories of another conflict that took place in the jungles of southeast Asia more than 30 years ago. It’s just their interpretations that are different.

“We lived through Vietnam and learned a lot from it,” said Sousa. “It’s just that some people seem to forget so quickly.”

Stewart hasn’t forgotten, though. Back then, she was a young teen. Her friend Moses Placeres, a Cuban refugee living in the Gilroy area, decided to join the military and head to Vietnam in the name of democracy as soon as he was eligible to enlist. He never came home. When Stewart’s brother-in-law did, he was spit on, called “babykiller” and humiliated after two tours of duty.

“I’m out here in honor of Moses and in honor of my brother-in-law,” said Stewart as an older man driving by slowed to salute the flag she carried. “We’re not in a draft situation. I think that says it all. When young people are willing to join the military in war, willing to go knowing they may end up in a war zone, that they may never come home … it gives me and it gives a lot of people newfound respect for this country.”

Cpl. Jesus Rivera graduated from Gilroy High School in 2002 and joined the marines later that year, knowing full well that he might be sent into battle if the president decided to invade Iraq, but hoping it wouldn’t come to pass.

“I was sold on the image of the Marine Corps and what it would do for me when I got out,” said Rivera, who returned Sept. 19 from a seven-month tour in Iraq. “I was hoping we wouldn’t go over there because they knew we were coming, and that wasn’t going to be good. I was in boot camp, and they actually allowed us to watch the news, so I knew things were pretty serious. I was like, ‘Damn.'”

Rivera, who had only moved his wife to Camp Pendleton four months earlier, was selected to go overseas when orders came calling his unit to action.

After a hasty departure and an 18 hour ride on a C-5 Galaxy, he found himself in Kuwait last February, unsure of what to do when he realized that everyone he met seemed to match his mental profile of what a “terrorist” might look like.

Over the next few months he would learn the only way to determine the difference between good and bad was to get to know someone face to face.

“You kind of let your guard down after a little bit, but you never turn your back,” said Rivera of the citizens he met and interacted with on a daily basis.

Mortar attacks became part of Rivera’s daily routine, an occurrence that rattled him even months after his first exposure to the sound, annoying the marine who said the sound was something he could never quite get used to.

“Day after day and night after night,” said Rivera. “You’d be trying to eat and then there would be mortars coming, or once a week, I’d be able to make a phone call, but you’d be making a phone call, and then there’d be a mortar hit. They put a fear really deep in your chest. You’d hear it, and then you’d get on the phone, and you’d just want to love everyone and tell them how much you missed them.”

Rivera never saw the backside of a desk during his time in Iraq, working as a security screener for one of the gates leading into Fallujah’s green zone instead. There he met Iraqis, Saudis, Jordanians and Turks as well as Filipinos and Nepalese workers, all of whom had come to Iraq in a desperate search for money to support their families at home, even if working for $5 American per day meant death. He was stunned.

“Everything that they have right now is basically a struggle for survival,” said Rivera. “If you think about just the local governments being down, that their dinars aren’t worth anything … It’s whoever’s the highest bidder. One man may come work for you today and be working for the insurgents tomorrow. And you wouldn’t be able to blame them if they did it, either.”

Rivera has been home since September, but his feelings about the war, which he believes will drag on for much longer than any Bush staffers suggest, still run deep.

“What upset me is there are people in the United States who just take everything for granted … their freedoms, everything,” said Rivera, who said he sees the United States’ involvement in Iraq eventually rolling over into a permanent relationship solidified by developed bases much like the United States possesses in Japan and South Korea. “The world is really small once you’ve been to the other side. It’s just a plane ride.

“I think the people see the TV – they go to Mexico or they travel to Europe and those places are nice – and they think it’s another world. When they see these car bombings and things, it’s as far away as Mars, but it’s just 18 hours.”

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