"My Son Is a Murderer" -- The Gut-Wrenching Realities Facing Military Moms

Human Rights

In 2004, Susan Galleymore traveled 7,472 miles from Alameda, Calif., to deliver a message to her Army Ranger son stationed on a military base in Iraq's Sunni Triangle.

"Don't do anything you'll regret or be ashamed of because it will haunt you for the rest of your life," she told him.

The devastation and despair she witnessed, and the stories she heard in taxis and coffee shops along the way made her realize how disconnected Americans are from the realities of war and occupation -- even those of us who like to think we are well-informed.

She decided that she couldn't return to California and continue life as usual.

Over the next few years, she traveled to Israel, the West Bank, Lebanon and Syria to interview mostly mothers about their personal stories and everyday struggles.

She couldn't go to Afghanistan because she ran out of money, so she interviewed Afghan women by phone and Afghan American women living in the Bay Area in person. She also interviewed a number of American military moms.

Galleymore compiled these first-person narratives, along with her observations and analysis, in a newly released book, Long Time Passing: Mothers Speak About War and Terror.

We meet Elham, a Lebanese mother whose home was bombed by the Israeli air force in July 2006. She says:

"My message to Americans, especially American women, is, 'Please try to feel how Arab women feel.' Why do American mothers send their sons to die in Iraq? Is it for democracy? Shouldn't democracy be built by the people? If it is imposed from those outside, isn't that occupation?

"When Americans talk about terrorists, I look around, and I see people bombing our people, our land, and I wonder just who are the terrorists? The United States doesn't call the Israeli attacks against us in our land terrorism, yet calls our defense of land and our people terrorism.

"America is learning now, in Iraq, what the Israelis have learned, what the British should have learned, what the French have learned, and what the Ottomans learned about Arab resistance. History will not change. Those who don't have a history and who will not learn the lessons of history will not have a future.

"Americans haven't yet understood that it is not only technology that wins in the long run. The spirit of the people to own their own land and their own culture will always win in the end. We have heroes and martyrs for our cause, and their young people are killed just for the material benefit of a few."

In Damascus, Galleymore met Wissam, a "young, fresh-faced and outspoken" Iraqi biologist. Wissam's husband, a Shiite, divorced her, a Sunni, out of fear for his life. She says:

"I cannot find work here. I might find a job selling in a store, but anything that actually used my education and skills would require papers to prove I'm not taking a Syrian's job. I blame the U.S. administration -- not the American people -- for the destruction of our infrastructure, our society, our culture, our historical richness and our independence. All we respected of our land and our people is gone, destroyed by the arrogance of the U.S. administration.

"The Americans didn't bring us democracy, but instead brought a lethal freedom. There is a sense now that anybody can do anything and nobody will be punished. Is this the ethic of democracy, freedom without limitations? When it appears, life is run according to the rule of the jungle."

In the U.S., Galleymore met Eman Ahmed Khammas, an Iraqi writer, translator and former director of the Occupation Watch Center, an organization that allows Iraqis to inform people around the world about conditions under occupation and monitors the activities of military forces and foreign corporations.

In March 2005, Khammas traveled to Washington to speak about the effects of the invasion. While walking near congressional offices, she began to cry. She told Galleymore, "Americans have so much. Look at these clean, orderly streets, the wide-open spaces, the quiet and the obvious wealth of the people. Yet your military is in our country, and our land is a living hell. Why? What do you want from our small and comparatively poor country?"

Galleymore writes, "I had no answer."

AlterNet caught up with Galleymore before and during her book tour. Galleymore is the founder of MotherSpeak, an organization that brings mothers together to share their stories. She's also the host of Raising Sand Radio and a counselor on the GI Rights Hotline.

Rose Aguilar: Is this common? Do parents go to Iraq to visit their kids, and we just don't hear about it?

Susan Galleymore: I wouldn't say that it's common, but it's certainly not unique. Just before I went to Baghdad, a couple of other people had gone, too. Annabelle Valencia had two kids in Iraq. She had a son in Baghdad and a daughter in Tikrit. When her son got wind of her coming, the U.S. military sent him back to tell her not to come. He said, "If you come, don't visit me," and she didn't. She did visit her daughter.

RA: And that's exactly what your son said. Don't come. It's too dangerous.

SG: Yeah, he did say that.

RA: Why did you go?

SG: I grew up in apartheid South Africa, but I also have a British and Dutch family, so those cultures have a history of war, a much longer history than we have here in the United States. We've forgotten about the Civil War here. I grew up in the countryside, so I saw a lot of people who were affected by war. I hadn't said anything to my son about that because he was a kid, and you don't tell your kids the worst things about life when they're growing up.

When he went into the military, I was not for it, but he went in anyway. He was 22. I figured, well he'll get in, discover he doesn't like it, and he'll get out. I didn't realize that you couldn't get out of the military very easily.

When he was deployed, first to Afghanistan and then to Iraq, I felt like I needed to tell him that terrible things happen in war. And those things can affect your psychology for the rest of your life. Be very aware of that. Don't do anything you'll regret or be ashamed of, because it will haunt you for the rest of your life.

RA: Why did he join?

SG: I think he had a lull. He was in school studying Chinese language. It gets kind of boring sometimes in school, and he was in one of those periods. There was a handy recruiter nearby. It was 1999, so there wasn't a war fever. That's why I stepped back a little and thought, well, this will pass.

RA: So you joined a Code Pink delegation going to Iraq. You were the only military mom in that delegation.

SG: There were 10 other women. Code Pink was the last delegation going to Iraq at that point, because the violence got so bad after that.

RA: Talk about how you went about finding your son. Soldiers are not allowed to tell their mothers, their children even, where they're located.

SG: Right. I was staying in a hotel where there were a lot of unembedded journalists, including Mike Ferner and Dahr Jamail. Ferner had been doing a lot of research in the area and said, "This is how you get in touch with the public affairs officer," and he gave me her e-mail.

I e-mailed her and said, "I'm coming. This is when I expect to be there. Let me know if there's a problem. Otherwise, I'll see you then." She never responded. I hired Jamail's translator, who was a Shiite, and he drove me into a Sunni area.

You don't really think about all of this stuff when you're on your own mission. He told me that he was recently married and his wife was pregnant. I said, "It makes no sense for you to be taking me. Why are you doing this?" And he said, "Because you're a mother."

RA: When you got to the base, how did the military treat you?

SG: I was wearing a hijab, so they didn't recognize me as an American, of course. I walked up to one guy, and he said, "Ma'am, get back in your car." He had this huge M-16 or M-4 or something over his shoulder. I said, "I'm expected here. I have business here." He said, "Get back in your car!" I took the hijab off and I waved my passport. And then they were like, "Oh, what are you doing here? You're American." It was a totally different situation suddenly.

RA: You spent 80 minutes with your son. You don't spend much time writing about the interaction.

SG: I wanted to keep that personal. We talked about my concerns, and then we just hung out. He showed me where the missiles come into the base at night. This is not a story about my son's time in the military: This is about the mothers who are in the war zones.

RA: What was it about that experience that led you on this journey of interviewing mothers in Israel, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan?

SG: The first person I met the very next day was Anwar. She lost three of her children and her husband in a shooting that our troops had perpetrated. It's called a "random shooting accident," so there's never really any follow-up. Anwar had lost her whole family. She didn't have a future.

When I interviewed her, she said, "I want the whole world to know what's happening here." I realized at that point that we weren't getting the whole picture. I really felt like I needed to help Americans understand what was going on.

Subsequently, we've lost track of Anwar. I don't know if she's still in Baghdad. I don't know if she's in Syria. We don't know where she is.

RA: She could be one of the almost 3 million internally displaced Iraqis or one of the 2 million who've been forced to flee the country.

SG: That's right.

RA: In some ways, you were like an unembedded journalist yourself, talking to people we rarely hear from in this country. You were traveling around with a translator talking to mothers about their experiences.

SG: And trying to get the story that's not out there. Why don't we ask ordinary people, "What's going on with you?" They are the "collateral damage," and we're not interested. That's the problem.

We need to hear what's happening to these people. There are up to a million people that have died in Iraq. In Iraq. We're not talking about Afghanistan here. We need to know that, because we're responsible for that.

RA: Talk about another mother you met in Iraq.

SG: Aglame lives right near the other side of the Tigris. She has 10 kids. We went to her place, a very small place. She welcomed us in and offered to feed us. They were so hospitable to us. It's very humbling to come from the richest country in the world where you're bombarding people like this.

It must've been completely weird to them. I show up and say my kid is in the military, and I want to know more about what their life is like. It went on and on like that in Iraq. In every other country I went to, it was the same thing. I always started off by telling them that my son was in the military so there was no pretense. I never once was turned away. No one was ever hostile to me. They were so gracious and so hospitable.

RA: That's what struck me. I learned more from a three-page interview with a mother than I'll ever learn on the Sunday shows. You had to hire a driver and a translator. You funded the trips on your own. How did you find people to interview?

GS: At some level, these people were presented to me. A lot of people in the Bay Area, for example, connected me with voices in Israel and the West Bank. And then things just happened.

I didn't know about this woman, Tali Fahima, who is a Mizrahi Jew -- North African and very right-wing at the time. Then out of the blue, she wants to find out what this terrorism thing is all about. What is this occupation thing? So she went to one of the refugee camps in Jenin. She was struck. She stayed there for three days and was eventually arrested by the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces].

I happened to be there the day she was having her final trial. I had learned Hebrew when I lived in Israel, but it's been 25 years. She spoke English. I was able to sit and talk with her.

She said, "I had to know. Now that I know, I can never go back to being the same person that I was. I can't keep my mouth shut about this. I don't care if they put me in jail." They were threatening her with 30 years in jail.

RA: Why?

GS: Because they said that she had passed a map on to the quote-unquote terrorists, when in fact the map dropped out of the pocket of an IDF trooper. It was convenient, and there she was. They also accused her of having an affair with a terrorist. My point is these events and these people just presented themselves. The same thing happened in Lebanon. I never felt like I had to work tremendously hard. And I wasn't up against resistance to get these stories.

RA: Who did you meet in the West Bank?

SG: One woman's father was in jail for resistance. Her husband was in jail for resistance. And her son is currently in jail for resistance. He went in when he was 15. He'll be there for eight years. In this case, he was throwing stones.

She describes the devastating effect this had had on the family, especially the youngest boy, who adored his brother, and now he knows the Israelis have taken him, whatever that means, and he wants to kill all Israelis. When we talk about the effects of war, we have to understand that kids don't miss out on this.

I was in Israel from 1975 to 1977. At the time, I was living on a kibbutz. I was very interested in the communal life. When I went back to Israel in 2005, I was so amazed at the changes and the destruction of the land. There are immense, large houses they call settlements all over the West Bank. There are checkpoints everywhere. It's such a different place.

RA: You tell stories about what it's like for Palestinians to be humiliated at checkpoints and Palestinian mothers unsuccessfully trying to get through to take their kids or themselves to the hospital. You met Israeli activists who monitor Israeli soldiers at the roadblocks. You write that according to every Arab you've talked to, "the disposition of Palestine and Palestinians is the root of the troubles in the Middle East today."

SG: You'll hear that over and over again. And of course, that flies in the face of our policy in the United States. That's not what people want to think, because if that's the problem, how do we solve it? If the problem is that the Palestinians have lost their land and are continuing to lose their land, are in refugee camps all around the Middle East and in their own homeland and the Israelis say that they deserve it and we're supporting the Israelis, what do we do? How do we fix that?

RA: You discuss these questions with Nurit Peled-Elhanan in Beit Moza, Jerusalem. Her 13-year-old daughter, Smadar, was killed by a suicide bomber in Jerusalem in 1997. She's active in the Parents Circle-Family Forum, a group of 500 Israeli and Palestinian families seeking to solve problems through dialogue. She's also a harsh critic of the Israeli government and the occupation. She doesn't mince words. She says in Israel people don't know what happens 20 meters from them because "it is easier -- and more comfortable -- not to know."

SG: Nurit is very strong. She's very clear. She's very smart. Her father, Matti Peled, was a general in the 1948 war. He realized that the direction Israel was going in was not going to be conducive to peace. They threw him out of the military. She comes from that tradition.

She lost her kid in a suicide bombing. She convinced both of her sons to refuse to serve in the Israeli army. She speaks in a way that would make many people uncomfortable. I like her because of that. It's very difficult for women to empower themselves, step back and say, "Wait a minute, my son is a murderer, and I have to do something about that." That's very difficult for women to do. But that's where we need to be heading.

She's gone through the worst thing that a person can possibly go through, and she's come out on the other side. She's not going to shut up.

RA: You were challenged by Sihan Rashid, a Palestinian woman who was born in the U.S. and now works as a counselor at the Palestinian Counseling Center in East Jerusalem. She challenged your assumption about the power of the media and the "belief that showing images of war and presenting accurate accounts of its devastation would enrage Americans to the extent that they would force politicians to end war and militarism."

SG: I actually found that very fascinating because I, like a lot of people here, believe showing war images is a good thing. I think it's contextual. I think we do need to see more. We need to hear more stories.

In Palestine, every single day, there's death and destruction, and it's on their television. Sihan's point is that, "We can't take this anymore. This is too much." Their children have a syndrome called selective mutism. These kids are no longer speaking because they've been shocked. Their houses have been destroyed.

Her point is, we have to have some sort of context. In the United States, you need to see more. In Palestine, we need to see less. It's about how people take in information and what they do with it. These families are not able to function. We don't want to get to that point.

RA: Is anything standing out for you now that you're on the road? How are people responding to these stories?

SG: At every event, we've invited people from the community who are affected by war to speak. In Philadelphia, we had three Iraqis join us -- one doctor and two who have been displaced. In Washington, we were joined by Chantelle Bateman, a former JROTC commander who speaks out about the risks of military enlistment. In New York, we had Nurit's son Elik Elhanan. That's been gratifying. It's not just about me and my book. It's about people sharing their stories.

How are people responding? Well, the reception at the events has been great, but I have to wonder about the rest of the population. On the plane from New York to Boston, I saw very privileged, plump folks who might think that what's happening in the Middle East is fine because we're "protecting" ourselves. It really gives you a chill. I think about how they would respond if they met the people in my book.

They probably wouldn't be very concerned. I believe there's a sense that it's OK to be doing these things. I'm getting that sense more and more. It's OK because it needs to be done. I even hear young people say, "Well if those people weren't in the military, who would be?"

You realize the framework of the actual work that has to be done to change minds.

RA: What's next for you?

SG: I'm going to continue speaking out and trying to bring people together. It's important to reach across cultures, shake hands, look in one another's eyes and say, "I see you. I hear your story."

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