War is Personal is part of an ongoing photojournalism project by Eugene Richards and The Nation Institute. Click here for a slideshow of images.
I remember the war in Nicaragua in the 1980s, the contra scandal, the weapons for hostages. Oliver North took the blame for Ronald Reagan. I remember when a bomb blew up in Beirut and kill about 200 Marines. I watch them on the TV, searching for them, carrying the bodies out on stretchers, pieces of them. And what I learned of Vietnam in my country? I never understood what they was fighting for. Costa Rica, it was my home when I was a boy, and we had the same climate, same weather, and I was afraid the United States would someday come to Costa Rica and do the same thing. So, when my son told me at age 17 that he was going to join the service, I said, “Oh, no,” and he said, “Don’t worry, Dad.”
His mother knew the whole time. Then they told me last, I guess because they know how I was feeling. The Marines had an office in the high school and the recruiters know everything, know who comes from divided families, especially when the father’s not around. They offer Alex thousands of dollars for signing up and help with college. Though we share custody, one parent can sign. His mother sign the paper. From that moment on, of course, I support my son. I had US Marine bumper stickers on my car, flags in my home, letting people know, even though I didn’t want him to go.
Alex went to basic training in California, then more training. Then, because he wasn’t being told anything by the military, he began asking me for information about the Middle East, about what the President is saying. Next thing I know, my son is being made ready for urban combat. Next thing he’s on the way to Kuwait, on the way to Iraq, and I’m here at home learning that there’s no nuclear armaments there, there’s none of them. I’m starting to learn all this, and my son is on the way there.
So much happen. I have two TVs at the same time, the radio on. I can’t go to sleep. I’ve been married with Mel seven years, working as a bus driver, part time, sometimes a landscaper and painter, but I can’t go to work, because I want to know what happen. I was worried, very worried, by reading all the newspapers and concentrating too much on the war on the TV. I see how my son got from here to Iraq, see them prepare for invasion, see sandstorms, they reach the Tigris River, and two Marines got killed there, and my son was traveling inside a tank that was very noisy, a lot of fuel smells. All along I see the minister of information for Saddam Hussein on TV say, “I’m going to kill all of them.” I see all the sadness, see how they kill, see how the Marines move through the dark alleyways, kick doors, blindfold people, while afraid most of the time for snipers and bombs. I was all the time calling the Marines and the Red Cross, asking them about the situation. I hear nothing about my son for days and days. It was too much, too much, too much for parents.
Next thing I know, I see soldiers rolling into Baghdad, people at the side of the road saying hello, welcome, and I was very happy. And I say, “Thank God.” The statue go down, they catch Saddam, and I see the President of the US landing on the air carrier with big signs saying, “Mission Accomplished.” And I say, “Oh my God, it’s over. The war is over.”
The 25th of August in 2004 was the day of my birthday, and I was expecting a phone call from Alex, which he never miss, to say, “Happy Birthday, Dad.” My mother start baking a cake, and I was working outside with my cell phone in my pocket when I saw the Marines get off the van. Thought it was a surprise, and my happiness was overwhelming. Next thing, the Marines ask me if I was Carlos Arredondo. I don’t understand why they asking me that, and I don’t see my son anywhere. I even ask them, “Are you guys here to recruit some kids?” because I have a second son, a 16-year-old, Brian. And he said, “I’m sorry, I’m coming to notify you that Alexander Arredondo got killed in combat.” At that moment, not expecting those words, my world tumbled and I felt my heart go down to the ground and rush up through my throat. I run from my house to the backyard, looking for my mother to tell her what these men were saying. And she run to try to talk to them, while I was trying to call Maine to reach Alex’s mother. Brian answer the phone and because I was in tears, all I could say was, “Sorry, I’m sorry. They’re telling me your brother got killed.” And Brian said, “I know that, I know.” “How do you know that?” “‘Cause the Marines, they’re here right now, and when I saw them coming, I know.”
I run back into the house, grab Alex’s picture to give it to my mom. Then seeing the uniforms, ask the Marines to please leave, leave. “Can you please leave.” Perhaps I thought that if they did leave, then none of this was happening. I ask God to help me, then call my wife, who was working down the street. And again I ask the Marines to leave, to leave the house. When they answer that they are waiting for my wife, I went into the garage and got a hammer. After asking them to leave again, I walk toward the van, wanting to smash it, all the time hearing the Marines telling me, “Sir, don’t do that, don’t do that,” and my mother yelling in Spanish, “Carlos, Carlos, we’ve already lost Alex.” My head full of confusion, asking myself what’s going on, what’s going on, I pounded the hammer hard into the ground, then went behind a tree to cry when I think to call Alex’s recruiter, Sergeant Martinez. I have his telephone number in my phone. I call him, explain that I’m Alex’s father and ask him to please help me, the Marines are telling me Alex has died. The voice on the other side say, “Sir, sir, you’ve got the wrong number.” I look and the phone say “Sergeant Martinez.” Pretty sure it was Sergeant Martinez’s voice. I call him back again, and again he hung up on me.
I got so angry I go to my garage and get a five-gallon can of gasoline that I keep for my lawn mower, also a torch like they use for welding. And with one in each hand, I once again ask the Marines to leave my house. And they… I don’t really remember what was the answer, but they didn’t move. So I approach the van, pick up the hammer, bang at that window so hard I cut my arms. When my mother pull the gasoline can away I chase her, got it back, open the van door, begin banging everything inside the van–the computer, the dashboard, the seats, the roof. I couldn’t find my son. I was screaming for my son when I threw everything, everything from the van. When I have nothing else to throw, I found the five gallons of gasoline and began pouring it everywhere, everywhere. I was splashing my body, my legs, my clothing. And there was my mother, screaming, the Marines outside the van, talking the whole time on the phone, the fumes that were so strong I couldn’t breathe, though the windows were broken.
I am with one leg out of the van, holding the acetylene torch, with my mother pulling at me, when I lose my balance. But what happens was I press the button, which ignite the torch. Next thing was an explosion that threw me out with a lot of fire, and I was falling head down on the ground in flames. And not knowing yet what happen to my mom, I run across the street, until one of the Marines jump on top of me, on my back. And I was screaming, “Momma, Momma, Momma,” because my socks, my feet, my shirt were burning. As they dragged me away from the van something blew up. A big bang. And I continue screaming, yelling for my son Alex. “Are you sure that was Alex? Are you sure?”
The day of my son Alex’s wake, I was on a stretcher because of the burns. On morphine, so I don’t remember many people. I remember hugs, shaking hands. And I remember waiting outside of the funeral home for my ex-wife for two hours, not wanting to see my son’s body by myself. When I first approach the casket, I thought it might be hard to recognize him, because we had not been told yet what killed him. We hadn’t learn yet that he had a wound in the temple of his head, so that he had a three-inch-wide hole in back of his head. But it was him. And seeing him laying flat in a casket, I thought, he’s not breathing and that he looks a little different, a little older. That his hair is a little bit longer. Wanting to reach him I was lifted off the stretcher and climb up to kiss him, to touch his head, his hands, his fingers, his shoulders, his legs, to see if they were still there. I lay on top of the casket, on top of my son, apologizing to him because I did nothing for him to avoid this moment. Nothing.