From Grief To Protest:
How Peace Loving Fathers Honor Their Fallen Sons
by Paul Rockwell
Father's Day is not a happy time for Bill Mitchell or Fernando Suarez del Solar. These proud, defiant fathers, who lost their sons in the war on Iraq, are calling for an end to the U.S. occupation, seeking to honor the memory of their sons through protest. Here are their stories.
On March 20th, the first anniversary of the Iraqi war, Bill Mitchell, a devoted father, joined the worldwide protest in San Luis Obispo, California. He carried a big photo of his son that read "Bring my son home now." All tragedies are unique. A week later, his son Sergeant Michael Mitchell was killed attempting to rescue a platoon of U.S. in Sadr City -- killed in an occupation his father tried to end.
Last week I reached Bill Mitchell in Atascadero. We talked about his grief, his son's courage in battle, the fire in his soul and his campaign to halt the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Bill Mitchell is a new member of Military Families Speak Out -- over 1500 soldiers, veterans, and relatives opposed to war in Iraq.
Paul Rockwell: Tell us about your son, Michael. What was he like?
Bill Mitchell: Mike was one of those '90s, sensitive kind of guys. Mostly he liked to spend time with his fiancee. He was engaged to be married in August. He was an athlete, excelled in high school track and field, cross country and wrestling. When Mike was a kid, I single-parented him for five years. In the 80s you didn't hear about single Dads. Every night I sat with Mike on the couch. He was an avid reader, and he would make me read "The Little Engine that Could" ten times a night. Let me tell you that if I tried to skip a page, he would catch me every time. "Oh, no, Dad, you missed it." I used to read to that boy.
Paul Rockwell: How did Mike die in Iraq?
Bill Mitchell: He was killed in combat in Sadr City, a suburb of Baghdad. It was April 4th during the first day of the Shiite riots. My son was only days from coming home. He was a tank mechanic. Someone came up and said, "There's a platoon of soldiers from Fort Hood caught in an ambush in Sadr City." My son raised a hand. One of his buddies said, "Why don't you stay here." Mike said, "If my buddies are going, I'm going with them." My son was too damn cocky. He thought he was a superman.
Paul Rockwell: I remember reading about the battle in Sadr City in Newsweek. When U.S. commanders shut down the Shiite newspaper, the Shiites rebelled. They set up roadblocks built from washing machines, refrigerators and burning tires. Twenty U.S. soldiers were trapped by an ill-trained militia armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
Bill Mitchell: Mike was one of eight men killed that day. He was shot through the right eye and died instantly.
Paul Rockwell: How do you and your family cope with the tragedy?
Bill Mitchell: Man, I need to ponder that one. I can tell you that the days are not getting easier. It's not like I am OK with his loss. I look at a picture, or just have a thought. Those people closest to Mike are not getting over this. I remember the days before he died. Anytime the phone rang, I feared for my son's life. But nothing prepared me to know the real devastation that event has brought me. My life is so much worse than I could ever have imagined. Everything I do, 98 percent involves Michael. Everything I do involves my son's death. I'm not getting over it.
We sat with Mike right before he was cremated. Next morning I woke up and subconsciously I knew Mike was dead. Each day brings revelations anew and new anger. I wish I could be OK with it, but I am not happy, and not happy with Bush.
Paul Rockwell: Recently I have seen a number of funerals on TV. When a soldier dies, it is typical for a parent to say, "My son died for his country. We support the occupation and should finish the job." It's as if the funeral sanctifies the war that claimed a youth's life. Your response seems quite different. You are turning grief into protest.
Bill Mitchell: I refuse to let my son die quietly for an unjust war. I was against the war before it began. I was semi-politically active. Now Mike's memory pushes me. I have raised the level of my activism. Now that my son will never come home, I am more firmly against the war than ever. A fire has been lit within me and unfortunately, the path of my life has been altered. I feel that I must put myself out there and do whatever I can to see that no other parent learns of the pain that comes with losing a child to war. I want to go to Washington, I want to stand on people's desks, if that's what it takes. You saw that guy Berg, whose son was beheaded? He blames Bush and Rumsfeld. I want to meet him. I want to stop this insanity.
Paul Rockwell: Around the week your son was killed, newspapers finally published a photo of flag-draped coffins. How did you respond?
Bill Mitchell: I actually wrote a letter to the Seattle Times praising the editors for publishing the photos. I am quite sure my son was in one of the coffins in the picture. Hiding the death and destruction of this war does not make it easier for anyone except those who want to keep the truth away from the people. I know the current government policy has the bodies being flown in under the cloak of darkness. I would be willing to help that poor woman in Kuwait who lost her job over the picture which she felt needed to be seen. The other parents who lost children on the same day as my son would also feel that she did a service for us.
Paul Rockwell: Do you think Americans try to avert their eyes from the reality of war? Is there willful ignorance in our country?
Bill Mitchell: I don't think people want to think about the death that's resulting from this war. It's too upsetting. Americans are more worried about gas prices and how to fill their SUVs. And the people driving the SUVs say, "This war is not about oil." I was over at my brother's house yesterday. My grandson has got a new video game. He is going through the game and he is blowing up people, going "Yeah! Yeah!" He's only five years old. There's an insensitivity to death in our population. Whether it comes from the media or movies, there's not a lot of respect for life.
Paul Rockwell: Your son was awarded a Bronze Star for attempting to rescue 20 soldiers trapped in Sadr City.
Bill Mitchell: He volunteered for a dangerous mission, risked his life to save his buddies. I believe that the actions on the day he died make him a hero. But in the broader scheme of things, I do not think the war is a war of self-defense. I am having a major problem with being OK with his death under the circumstances. And I don't really believe that Iraq, or the world or the lives of his family and friends, are better due to his death.
Paul Rockwell: An heroic soldier in an unheroic war.
Bill Mitchell: Yes. Mike was killed by the very people he liberated. That's insane. My son wrote me letters and told me about the Iraqi kids. I got pictures of Mike playing soccer with the Iraqi kids, shaking hands after the game, just like in America. But a couple of days after they played soccer together, the same kids were throwing rocks at the GIs. I'm a Vietnam-era veteran, and there's a parallel to Vietnam. You don't know who the enemy is. Mike never pointed his gun at Saddam's henchmen. His regiment was not fighting the Republican Guard or the Fedayeen. Mike was sent in to fight the Shiite militia in Sadr City. The Shiites were oppressed by Saddam. [Muqtada al-] Sadr is the cleric. His father was killed by Saddam. Now we are fighting Saddam's enemies. Something has gone astray, and no one is asking, 'What is our nation doing?' We just continue to fight anyone who gets in the way. The editor of Editor and Publisher Magazine compares what is taking place in Iraq to the Tet Offensive.
When my son died, I couldn't keep my face out of the TV. The very night I found out about Michael's death, I couldn't sleep. I was flipping to CNN. There was a speech of Bush saying, "The enemy is trying to challenge our will." Our will. I wrote that down, and I'm thinking, What about their will? Their will may be as strong as ours. I'm sure that the person who killed my son believed he was right. We were inside his country. I think oil is one reason we are there. If the major export from Iraq were broccoli, would we be there?
Paul Rockwell: Your concern is not only that you son was killed, but that he was killed by some one he wanted to help.
Bill Mitchell: We are fighting a different people than when the war started, and the government does not even acknowledge the fact that the enemy has shifted. There was no insurgency a year ago. It's Orwellian.
Paul Rockwell: Explain what you mean by Orwellian.
Bill Mitchell: You remember Winston (the protagonist in 1984). He works on a newspaper, and his job is to rewrite the archives. In the middle of some war, the enemy changes. So Winston has to go back and re-write history. First there's enemy one. Then there's enemy two. So he re-writes the story. That's what it is like in Iraq. Now al-Sadr is the enemy.
Paul Rockwell: Your comparison to Orwell's 1984 is evocative. Switching enemies is a major feature of permanent war. If you will allow me. I still remember a vivid scene in 1984, where some Orator harangues the crowd, inflaming hatred of Eurasia. At the beginning of the speech the enemy is Eurasia. Then someone slips the speaker a piece of paper. Without any explanation, without a change of tone, he changes the enemy. He substitutes Eastasia for Eurasia. The enemy is switched without any admission that a change has taken place. The frenzy of hatred continues at the same pitch. Only the name of the enemy is different.
Bill Mitchell: And we have created enemies because of our actions. Iraqis are responding to what the U.S. has done. Fifteen months ago we fought Saddam; there was no insurgency. And now we are gunning for Shiites as we put some of Saddam's generals back in power. That's Orwellian.
Paul Rockwell: Do you think the President fabricated the case for war?
Bill Mitchell: It's probably not a popular opinion, but honestly I do. My son died with dignity in an undignified war. I spoke out against the war when my son was alive. I'm not going to roll over now. I only wish I would have done more. But now I'm more committed.
His buddies in the Marines called him the "Aztec warrior." Jesus Suarez del Solar was one of the first Americans killed during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. On March 27th Jesus stepped on an undetonated U.S. cluster bomb and bled to death in a remote desert near Diwaniya. Jesus left behind his wife, his mother, his one-year-old son, three sisters, and a father who now speaks out against the occupation of Iraq. As a representative of Military Families Speak Out, a burgeoning organization of 1500 families who call for an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Fernando Juarez tells high school and college students: Stay in school; don't be deceived by false promises from recruiters for Bush.
Fernando Suarez del Solar is a Mexican-born American citizen. With his wife and children, he immigrated from Tijuana, Mexico, to Escondido, California, where he delivered newspapers and worked at a Seven-Eleven store.
What is it like to lose a son in war, or rather, in a war based on misinformation? I talked with Mr. Suarez last week.
Paul Rockwell: How did your son lose his life in Iraq?
Fernando Suarez: On March 26th the army dropped cluster bombs outside a city. The next day my son's unit received orders to advance into the area. That's when he stepped on a cluster bomb.
Paul Rockwell: I know cluster bomb are anti-personnel weapons, with a failure rate of 15 to 20 percent. When they lie unexploded on the ground, like mines, they look like beer cans and are easy to step on. Did his commanders inform Jesus about cluster bomb drops in the area?
Fernando Suarez: He never received any information about the drop.
Paul Rockwell: Was that a mistake, an exception to overall policy? Does the military put out fliers or warnings about cluster bombs in the area?
Fernando Suarez: No. What happened was, after my son was killed, the military in the area began to pay more attention. They publicized the accident.
Paul Rockwell: I guess the Iraqi civilians, like kids playing in the fields, didn't get any warnings about left-over clusters?
Fernando Suarez: That's right.
Recruiters Are Slick
Paul Rockwell: How did your son get involved in the military?
Fernando Suarez: My son was in Mexico. Along the border there are military recruiters. My son told the recruiter he hoped to join the police in Tijuana. The recruiter said: "Don't join the Mexican police. It's dangerous for you in the police department in Tijuana. It's safer for you to join the Marine Corps." In 1997 we moved from Tijuana to San Diego, where Jesus wanted to finish High School. That's where he joined the military.
Paul Rockwell: Did the recruiters deceive Jesus?
Fernando Suarez: The Military promised Jesus to provide money for school. They said Jesus would get $1,000 a month for school. but the recruiter never explained where the money comes from. When Jesus finished boot camp, he became very upset. He told me: "The recruiter said I am going to receive $1,000 every month. I only get $620." So I talked with the recruiter. He explained, "Yes, you receive $1,000 a month, minus money for the scholarship, minus a hundred dollars for the uniform -- minus, minus, minus."
Paul Rockwell: I understand that the military is recruiting youth from the Philippines, from Mexico, people of color in the Third World. Was your son living in Mexico when he was contacted?
Fernando Suarez: Yes. When he came to San Diego he had a green card.
Paul Rockwell: Where do recruiters contact young people?
Fernando Suarez: On the border there are lots of recruiting offices. Last year, around October, this one recruiter crossed the border into Mexico and recruited young boys from a school in Mexico.
Paul Rockwell: He went into a Mexican school to get sign-ups for the U.S. military?
Fernando Suarez: Yes.
Paul Rockwell: What kind of promises did he make?
Fernando Suarez: According to what I heard, the recruiters say, "You can go to the U.S.A. and enter high school and enter a military program in high school."
Paul Rockwell: Like ROTC?
Fernando Suarez: Yes. They say to the kids, "I can help you with the papers."
Paul Rockwell: What do you think about recruiting kids from Mexico for U.S. wars?
Fernando Suarez: If they can use Hispanic people, Anglo-Americans don't have to be used. They want to use Hispanic boys in the war.
Paul Rockwell: You mean they are trying to substitute Hispanic kids so that Anglo-Americans do not have to risk their lives?
Fernando Suarez: Exactly. They offer education and a formal offer of citizenship. That's not all. Here in the U.S. they recruit kids in the barrios. They contact them when they are 14, 15 years old. And they say to our kids, "It's not a problem you do not have papers. You can enter the program and we will help you with the papers and immigration. You just need to do well in school and our program." This in my opinion is very immoral. There are a lot of high schools in the Mexican barrio where recruiters are recruiting. The recruiter has an open door. It's a big problem.
Paul Rockwell: Do you feel betrayed by the Bush Administration?
Fernando Suarez: The Bush Administration lied about the war. They lied to my son. They lied about weapons of mass destruction. They lied about Iraq and September 11th. And they lie about other things. Bush said last week, "I put in a lot of time to support families who lost members in the war." This is another lie. Mr. Bush never contacted me, never supported me, never supported my family. This is a lie. We have a lot of contact with parents, parents who have boys in Iraq. They are very upset with this war and Mr. Bush. My feeling is Mr. Bush use the boys for personal reasons, to get family revenge on Saddam. Bush has no idea about what is happening in Iraq. He never went to Vietnam. He has no good plan for what is to happen. He never provides humanitarian help for the civilian people. Thousands and thousands of civilians died. The children now have no help in the hospital. The ordinary Iraqi people say stop. You don't give me freedom. And it's not terrorist groups who are attacking Americans. It's the regular, ordinary civilian people.
In December 2003, Fernando Suarez traveled to Iraq. He visited the site where his son died, and he brought back thousands of letters of peace from Iraqi children. When he speaks, Fernando Suarez touches the souls of his listeners: "My heart goes out to the soldiers, many of whom come from poor communities and joined the military as a way to get an education. Then they find themselves sent off to a faraway land where they are exposed to death every day, with their families suffering back home -- all for the whims and lies of President Bush. I support the troops, but I don't support the Commander-in-Chief."
Published in In Motion Magazine June 11, 2004
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