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Fort Benning Vigil To Close The SOA
By John Poole
Spending two weeks in the latter half of July with Charlie Liteky (Medal of Honor recipient for heroism in Vietnam) turned out to be just what I needed to do, and just when I needed to do it. I had recently finished an intense, nine-year job working on a variety of social justice issues with a goal of systemic change. I needed to focus only on one dimension of that work for a consistent period of time. I also needed to share the experience with someone who felt passion for the work, as well as having background experiences in common. We had frequent visits with Roy Bourgeois, the Vietnam veteran who founded the School of the Americas Watch ten years ago. Charlie, Roy and I share a passion for Central America, having fasted to draw a focus to the region, as well as lobbying, conducting vigils, and protesting over the years. And we are Vietnam veterans. We had focused conversations on issues of social justice during most of the time we were together, but there were times when we just hung out, had a drink, and watched a movie. It felt comfortable to reminisce a bit and share stories.
Charlie has been conducting an ongoing vigil at Fort Benning for most of the past twelve months. Our Monday-through-Friday routine consisted of two hours of vigil in the morning, and two hours in the afternoon at the south gate. During each two-hour vigil we worked on laying out the panels and then putting each letter in place toward the construction of a Latin American Memorial Wall. The wall commemorates some of the victims of some of the atrocities perpetrated, in large part, by graduates of the U.S. Army's School of the Americas (SOA). Information on a panel includes the name of the country, the atrocity, the date it occurred, how many SOA graduates were involved, and the names of some of the victims. Occasionally, photos are included as well.
Charlie, Roy and I worked on painting small strips of wood and assembling them into 1,000 crosses, on which names of victims will be printed, for the solemn funeral procession that has become the mainstay of the annual November vigil and protest at Fort Benning. The event is scheduled on or close to the anniversary of the massacre of six Jesuit priests, a mother, and her daughter in San Salvador, El Salvador. This year's vigil and protest from November 19-21 will commemorate the tenth anniversary of the atrocity, which occurred November 16, 1989.
The last night of the visit couldn't have turned out better. Charlie and I had tuned into C-Span to watch a debate in the House of Representatives featuring an amendment to the Foreign Appropriations Bill, proposed by Joe Moakley of Massachusetts, to close the School of the Americas. The team of representatives who spoke in favor of the closing of the School developed a momentum that seemed promising. Then, in the late hours of the evening, came the vote: 230-197 in favor of closing the SOA It felt dreamlike. This could mean cutting off $2 million of "scholarship money" for flying Latin American military personnel to and from Fort Benning. My last vigil on the following morning was a celebratory one. When Roy came by to visit us, Charlie shared poignantly that the vote had occurred on the tenth anniversary of the day on which he returned his Medal of Honor in protest of the U.S. government's policy toward the countries and people of Central America.
When I boarded the plane to return to Chicago, I felt a sense of accomplishment. I'm still enjoying the impact of the experience.
John Poole has been part of the effort to close the School of the Americas for eight years.
He is a member of VVAW's Chicago chapter.