This morning I received an email from Father Roy Bourgeois, inviting folks to join him on his upcoming delegation to El Salvador in March. His letter sparked some memories which prompted this posting. I’ll share his invitation to El Salvador at the end of this reflection.

The image on the left is the future home of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly known as the School of the Americas (SOA), though you wouldn’t know that if you read through the organization’s “history” on its web site.

A little bit about my history first, though.

In 1989, two years after leaving the United States Air Force, I found myself lovingly embraced by a new community of people at First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto. Among the many peace and social justice issues the church was involved with, the congregation had deep connections with Salvadoran refugees during the civil war in El Salvador and had even sent delegations to El Salvador and Honduras during the war to get a feet on the ground view of what was really going on there.

At a potluck gathering one evening I was chatting with a few church folks when someone brought up torture and assassination (not your typical church pot-luck conversation, unless you happen to be a sanctuary church like First Pres.) and how terrible it was that the United States military was training Salvadoran soldiers on how to commit these atrocious acts. “That can’t possibly be true!” I interjected.

During my eight years in the Air Force (1979 – 1987) the message we got about torture and assassination was unambiguous. We were not only absolutely prohibited from participating in such acts but we were required to report any attempt to encourage such actions. Presidents Ford and Carter had issued executive orders including these very clear words: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” And, during the Reagan years while I served as an intelligence analyst and trainer, we were reminded every year that the executive orders were still in effect.

Engaging in assassination or torture were clearly, or so I was taught, violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and anyone who participated in such acts, or who had knowledge of such acts and didn’t report them, would be prosecuted. Period. End of story. Right? Well….. it turns out……

How could it be that these people whom I had come to love and respect were telling me that my fellow soldiers, whom I had also come to love and respect, were, in fact, engaging in assassination and torture and that they were training Salvadorans and other Central Americans to commit these acts at a place called the School of the Americas?

What’s a good, honorably discharged and lightly decorated veteran to do when confronted with such claims? Run it up the chain of command, of course!

I wrote a letter to the commander of the school and was surprised a few months later to get a thick package in the mail with his response. He flatly denied the claims about torture and assassination and said that the school was dedicated to democracy and human rights. He included course catalogs and examples of curriculum. I responded to his package with one more letter stating that, although I found his documents to be credible evidence that some courses taught at the school might be focused on democracy and human rights, this didn’t counter the growing number of credible claims that the school had and did, in fact, teach people how to commit torture and assassination. “Perhaps one way to give the school a fresh start, if, in fact, you are not engaging in these activities would be to change the school’s name.” I wrote.

And so you can blame me for the change from School of the Americas to WHINSEC. Sorry about that.

Meanwhile, life went on and I continued to follow the stories of people from El Salvador through hearing from delegations from our church that went there every year. The woman who led those delegations, Arlene Schaupp, tried to get me and my husband Derrick to join the delegations but we were pretty busy running our small business and didn’t think we had time for such a long trip, until…..

A dear friend of ours named Stan Grams had gone to El Salvador the year after his wife of nearly 60 years had died. “I realized that I’d kept putting things off until…. well you name the until.” He’d told me one day after he’d returned. Having spent time with the people there and desperately trying to figure out something he could uniquely do to help them, he got the inspiration that he could improve their lives enormously if they could get access to clean water. He decided to help launch a team of people in El Salvador that could dig clean water wells using old drilling equipment from the United States. I’d run into him in the church office as he was stuffing envelopes to raise money for his “Living Water” project. “Craig, don’t wait to do something until you retire, or until you have more time, or until you have more money, or, or, or, or…. When the invitation comes, say yes.” He was telling me this because he had found that after his wife died, all the things he and she had put off doing could never be done together. Now he was alone, missing her, and darn it, for whatever time he had left he was going to do whatever he wanted. “So, what’s next, Stan?” I asked. “I’m going to Egypt!” He told me.

Some weeks later, during worship on Sunday morning, the pastor announced that Stan Grams had been on the doomed Egypt Air Flight 990 on that fateful October 31st in 1999. The image on the left shows the debris from that plane. Conflicting reports of how the crash happened persist to this day, but the most likely cause was that one of the plane’s crew deliberately caused the plane to crash in the Atlantic ocean after leaving Kennedy Airport in New York.

As soon as I had digested what the pastor had said about Stan, I began to cry. His last words to me were ringing in my head when I felt a tap on my shoulder, and Arlene Schaupp said “Why don’t you come with us this year and see Stan’s wells?”

Of course that’s an invitation that I couldn’t refuse, and Derrick joined us on the trip too.

We traveled to El Salvador with a delegation in 2000 to visit the partner community with whom First Pres. had been engaged for so many years and to see the first well that was dug due to Stan’s hard work. Communidad Octavio Ortiz, a village in the lower Lempa river area, is named after a priest who was assassinated during the war. The people there live on land the government of El Salvador gave to them as part of the agreement to end the war. Each member of our delegation would live with one of the families in the village for around one week. I was really nervous about this part of the trip, knowing that the homes would have no electricity or running water, that the families only spoke Spanish, and that I’d be living with people who had endured horrible suffering during the war, the blame for some of which could be laid at the doorstep of the United States. How would they feel about a former member of the U.S. military, who had served during their worst times, staying in their homes?

El Salvador melted my heart. From the moment we arrived, with the whole community showing up to welcome us with guitar music and bottle rockets, we experienced a level of hospitality that was unmatched in all of my life experiences thus far. After a beautiful worship service on the first evening we were there, when it was completely dark, my host family led me by flashlight to their home. They showed me into the one room where everyone in the family slept which had one small bed and a bunch of hammocks. They pointed to the one bed and insisted that I sleep there, the best spot in the home, and they were giving it to me.

The next day we learned a lot about how the community worked and lived, getting to see their agricultural achievements, their community center and school, and traveling to a nearby community that boasted a library that had been built and supplied by another American church group. As evening approached our delegation leader told me that another family would be visiting my host family’s place that evening, along with an interpreter, and they would tell us about their time during the civil war.

That night we sat on the floor, with a single candle illuminating the room, and the husband and wife shared their stories. Like many Salvadorans, he really didn’t want anything to do with the civil war. That was “other people’s business” and he was really too young to understand what it was all about. But one day, soldiers came to his village and rounded up all the young males, including him. He was a teen at the time, and terrified. They beat him over and over and over again for days. One day, they were interrogating him and beating him and he heard another voice in the room, with a strange accent, and glanced over to see who it was. He saw a “Norte Americano,” an American soldier, who was telling his captors what to ask him and how to hit him.

His wife shared that she had witnessed members of her family being tortured and killed. Earlier in the day we had heard the story of another woman who had witnessed her family being massacred and as she tried to escape she was grabbed by a man wearing a mask who knocked her to the ground and was about to rape her. She managed to rip his mask off and realized that he was her godfather, a man who had been a very close family friend. “How can you do this?” She asked and he hit her, pinned her arm back down, and was about to continue when a shot rang out and her cousin fell dead on top of her body. She crawled out and saw a rebel fighter lowering his rifle. He waved for her to follow and she did, later becoming a medic for the rebels. Like so many others, until that horrible moment, she’d had no interest in being part of this war.

Their stories were heartbreaking, and there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that they were all telling the truth. “How can you be here, in this room, telling these stories to me, who used to be an American soldier, when you suffered so much pain at our hands?” I asked. “If you carry hate in your heart, that’s all there will be room for. We have to forgive, move forward, or we are better off dead.” Again, my heart melted. “But, as we sit here on this ground, this ground bought with my blood and the blood of my family, we don’t forget. We will never let anyone do things like that to us again.”

Despite what all of the people in this village had gone through, despite the constant adversity they still faced with floods, a lack of services from the government, poverty, and many difficulties, the people of Communidad Octavio Ortiz were undeniably happy people, grateful for every good minute of every good day, and willing to share what little they had. My host family, with around six people, cooked one chicken on the first day of my stay and we managed to eat from that one chicken for nearly seven days, never going to bed hungry. After the first night I insisted that the mother and father of the family sleep on their bed, taking a hammock for myself (this was a HUGE discussion before they finally agreed). These folks were also the most faithful people I had ever met, giving thanks to God for every good thing and giving up to God the things that were difficult, knowing that God would be there with them through whatever came.

Yet despite all the warm fuzzies, these are people who had engaged in a bloody civil war. They had been labeled “terrorists.” They had been guerillas, “unlawful combatants,” “militants.” Had I been a Spanish linguist instead of a Korean linguist, might I have considered them the enemy? Never again would I simply accept anyone labeling anyone else as my enemy.

When we came home from that trip to El Salvador, Derrick and I knew that our lives would never be the same. We spent more of our time on peacemaking and social justice activism, while still running our own consulting company, but we found ourselves less and less interested in the work work we were doing and more interested in making a difference in the world. Then, September 11th 2001….. We ended up in Afghanistan on an interfaith peace delegation and spent the next year doing presentations about Afghanistan including a workshop panel I was invited to speak on with Veterans for Peace……

I was the first of three panelists to speak and I shared about our experience in Afghanistan and our concerns about the aftermath there and the looming war in Iraq. The next panelist was a Special Forces veteran who had served in Central America. He talked about how he had trained soldiers and other militants and had directly participated in torture and assassinations. While it might not have been him, the stories he told matched the stories I’d heard from our Salvadoran friends to the letter.

“How could it be,” I asked him, “that while I was serving on one side of the world and being told that torture and assassination were prohibited, you were serving on the other side of the world torturing and assassinating people and teaching others to do the same?”

“We never got that memo.” He quipped.

“No, really…. you have to remember that Executive Orders aren’t really like laws. One President issues them, and another President can set them aside and Ronald Reagan was no Gerald Ford!”

My lessons had finally come full circle. From 1989 when I thought it was ridiculous for anyone to claim that American soldiers would participate in torture and assassination, to 2003, when it was clear that we had, and soon thereafter the world would be horrified by the images of torture smuggled out of Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, and today we sit and watch while unmanned drones assassinate people by the scores.

And where are we today? Father Roy Bourgeois is on his way back to El Salvador, Father Louis Vitale and so many others are on probation or in jail for crossing the line at Fort Benning (School of the Americans / WHINSEC), and the United Nations is investigating drone assassinations. And what are “we, the people” about whom President Obama spoke in his inauguration address this week, to do?

Father Roy Bourgeois says we should convince our Central American friends NOT to send their soldiers to WHINSEC. Good idea! If we can’t get our government to close the place, get their governments to stop sending people there. Without students, the school will hopefully eventually close. Beyond that, however, we the people should demand that the United States Congress pass laws, real laws, against torture and assassination. And, when the executive branch takes actions that violate those laws, Congress should intervene. We are NOT at war with Pakistan or Yemen. We should NOT be killing people with drones in those countries. And, the Congress should not issue a blank check to John Brennan to be the next CIA Director. He is a significant figure when it comes to torture and assassinations, having been involved in creating the “enhanced interrogation techniques” guidelines put forth by the Bush Administration and has been one of the key decision makers in President Obama’s targeted kill list drone assassinations. Whom are we killing? Folks that have been labeled as “terrorists,” “enemy combatants,” “unlawful combatants,” “militants,” and “extremists.”

Gee, it sounds so familiar. Where have we, the people, heard that kind of rhetoric before?

Back in my Air Force days, when I was reminded each year that it was illegal to assassinate or torture anyone, that made total sense to me. Today, there can be no doubt that in the minds of too many, torture and assassination are justifiable and perfectly OK. That’s got to change. Murder and torture are immoral and should be illegal. Period. End of story.

Our time in El Salvador and Afghanistan moved us from being comfortable techies to where we are today, running a peace and social justice learning company, working to transform the world through teachable moments. It was saying “yes” to an invitation that started that journey, and saying “yes” to more invitations that keeps us going. Now it’s your turn. What invitation will you accept? Don’t wait until……. whatever it is you think you should wait for before you accept invitations like this!

Thank you Stan Grams for your gift of knowing when to say yes.

Now an invitation from Father Roy Bourgeois:

I invite you to join me on a memorable journey that will break open your heart and place you in the center of our efforts of citizen diplomacy.Six countries have announced their withdrawal from the SOA. Now it’s time for El Salvador to follow the dignified example of its neighbors. This tiny nation lost tens of thousands of lives – among them, Monseñor Romero – at the hands of graduates of this school. U.S. militarization is unfortunately not a thing of the past in Central America, as brazenly illustrated by the 2009 SOA graduate-led military coup in Honduras and the rise of several SOA graduates within the security apparatus in El Salvador…….. (snip…. see more through the link below).

Click here to read more about it and sign up to go to El Salvador.


About Craig Wiesner

Craig Wiesner is the co-founder of Reach And Teach, a peace and social justice learning company. With a storefront in San Mateo and online, Reach And Teach offers books, games, curriculum, films, music, posters, and other products that promote peacemaking, gender equality and sustainable living. Craig and Derrick also manage web operations and online sales for Tikkun.

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