Memorial Day Weekend I took the train, the Amtrak, from Eugene, Oregon, to Emeryville, California. For the first time in my experience it showed up in Eugene on time. It arrived in Emeryville only 1 hour late. The train is a fantastic way to meet Americans. Much like on the Greyhound, everyone sees everyone else and for those who choose to talk, everyone gets equal airtime. If automobiles separate Americans into groups and the mass media privileges the voices of a few, then the train is one method by which, for about 12 hours at a time, the opposite is done. On previous trips I rode down to California with a man who once was served as part of the US occupation of Japan and then rode back to Oregon next to a woman from Japan. This time I rode next to a US servicewoman currently in the army reserves; her story shed light on the state of the war and the role every American plays.
Suzanne (this is not her real name) has five children, looked around 35 or 40 years of age, and wears a t-shirt that says, "Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Self-less Service." When I sat down next to her she was trying to sleep. She was on leave from the reserves and had just spent a short stay in Portland with her kids. Now, she was taking the train down to Chico, California, to meet her boyfriend for 5 days. She is a polite woman and she really didn't want to make me move when she got out of her seat momentarily. The most striking thing about her is her passion for speaking. Once we started talking Suzanne talked and talked. Then when I went into a different car to eat and chat with a friend, she started talking to the Frenchman across the aisle, for hours. Obviously she has something to say.
When the twin towers were hit, Suzanne was flying with her two young boys from the East Coast to Portland. When she landed every flight in the country was cancelled. Realizing that she and her boys could easily have been turned into a bomb to destroy her own country, she enrolled in the reserves. She wanted to do her part for the values that she cares about.
"They treat their women differently," she says. In Iraq, "our boys walk into a room and there is a woman strapped down and beaten up, surrounded by men raping her. Our boys aren't allowed to stop that. They come back different. We don't treat our women like that. When I get deployed I'll have to stay in the safe zone because they shoot for women. They don't care if they kill a woman, in fact, they want to." As she says this I am thinking that this is not Iraqi culture; that's not a culture. She is wrong. But, I came to realize that she was not saying that Iraqi's are evil, but that they have a different country that we should not be messing with. In fact, she explained that the war has exacerbated the maltreatment of women over there; and the maltreatment of children. Adamantly she told me, "My daughter was never her father's property nor will she be her husband's. I will fight with a war cry! Woo Woo!" Later she told me about her mother who at 67 broke her pelvis barrel racing, but she got better and she is still raising horses for pay. He mother is a horse whisperer from Las Vegas who now lives in Chilequin, a small Oregon American Indian community, and works for a cowboy and riding camp. It is no wonder that Suzanne values the power and freedom of American women.
Suzanne has a 12 year old son. She repeatedly mentioned how "they train 12 year olds to fight. They desensitize them to violence. How does one of our guys shoot a 12 year old. He's holding a gun at you and will kill you. You've got a 12 year old kid yourself, but you have to shoot this kid or else your not gonna see your kids at home. You come back changed. We are on the cusp of another Vietnam - shooting kids with laundry." It became clear that in Iraq, 12 year olds are being trained to fight because the men older than 12 are already dead. "They have discipline" she said. "They know they aren't going home ("they are home," I added and she smiled), so they'll die to kill us. They are training the new breed of Taliban."
"This war has the lowest American deaths, but the highest rate of other kinds of casualties" she explained. Service men come back changed. Many are missing limbs and many more have psychological problems. She told the stories of a few friends of hers. Here is one: " You come back and you can't live a normal life. My friend was 17 when he joined and now he's 28. He can't live a normal life. he worked with the big guns. he used binoculars and told his best friend, 24, to shoot. He shot, they shot back, and he watched his friend's head get blown up. Now he has a twitch in his eye. The cost is too great.
When I ask her when we should have gotten out she tells me that she probably should be not speaking against her government but she thinks we should have gotten out five years ago. I expressed some surprise and mentioned that more Americans should talk to people in the service. She told me, "People should definitely, definitely talk to people in the service. While you're bitchin' about your food being too cold there's a guy in a foxhole opeing up his last food ration so you can bitch. He's killing people and you know he doesn't want to. It is time to bring them home." Needless to say she supports Obama or Clinton.
"United We Stand, Divided We Fall," she said.
"Every American needs to do their part... Stop Driving." With a smile Suzanne tells me, " I rode the train because I wanted to save gas... do my part."
by Alan Waxman