Fernando Suarez del Solar has become something of a cause celebre in the antiwar movement. Although the Mexico native's English is spotty, he is still eloquent when he speaks of his son's death and the fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. "Mr. Bush lie and who die?" Suarez asked this week. "My son."
Suarez's 20-year-old son, Jesus, had desperately wanted to be a Marine. So the family moved across the border from Tijuana to California so that he could fulfill his dream at Camp Pendleton. The senior Suarez had been something of an activist in his hometown, a city rife with drug crime, and Jesus wanted to fight narcotraffickers, maybe go into special forces or the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Instead Jesus landed in Iraq and died last March after stepping on a stray American cluster bomb, according to his father. After his son's death, he made a decision to speak out against the war. "They tell me I'm staining the memory of my son. But that's not true. He died for his own ideals," Suarez said in Spanish. "All the young people who have died are a symbol of peace, valor and courage. But they were tricked."
Suarez finds it a bit ironic that a humble man who has yet to master the language of his adopted country (he is an American citizen) has become such an in-demand voice for the antiwar movement. He has spoken at rallies in Washington and will be a featured speaker at a national protest planned for March. He has taken a fact-finding tour to Iraq and been invited to Spain, Italy and throughout the United States to speak. He has joined liberal activist groups like Global Exchange, Military Families Speak Out and MoveOn.org. "I'm tired," Suarez said Wednesday, after a MoveOn.org event for which he had taken a red-eye flight from San Diego. "Not just because I haven't slept."
No wonder Suarez is exhausted: he is one of only a small number of military-family members who are speaking out publicly against the war in Iraq. Unlike the Vietnam War, where veterans like John Kerry became high-profile protestors, this war has yet to see former soldiers and their loved ones protesting in large numbers. Is that because they mostly support the war or because military culture frowns upon public criticism?
Antiwar activists say it's too early for veterans in particular to protest. They say that as the death toll rises, more soldiers and their families will come forward. "That is the next phase," explains Nancy Lessin of Military Families Speak Out, which she says has a little more than 1,000 active members and is getting about a dozen new members a week--mostly families whose kids are about to be deployed. She says there are a couple of veterans of the war who are planning to speak out through her group at this point. This week, I received an e-mail from one soldier who promised to go public after he is out of the service in April.
MoveOn.org has tried to bring military voices like Suarez's into its anti-Bush campaign. Of the more than 500,000 people who joined an online petition to censure the president for "misinformation" on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, about 25,000 had military ties, according to the organization. The recent reports that Iraq probably did not stockpile WMD haven't seemed to spark a big protest within military homes. Many antiwar family members like Joe Werfelman, whose son is a reservist, were already dubious about finding WMD. "This is just another lie," he says.
But Kathleen Monagle of Texas, whose husband is a reservist in Iraq, thinks Suarez and Werfelman are "in the minority." While disappointed that WMDs were not found, she says, "There was definitely reason to be concerned about Iraq using WMD or sharing what they had. By the time the threat becomes 'imminent' it's too late." She heads up a family-support group for reservist families in Iowa and Texas and says the families she speaks with still support the war. She has a son who is about to graduate from Marine Corps boot camp. "Chances are he'll end up in Iraq. And guess what? I still support this war," Monagle says. Her son is about the same age as was Jesus Suarez.