“If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents, they have become outlaws and murderers themselves. And they will take that lonely path at their own peril.” President George W. Bush
This week, seven Missoulians join thousands of protesters from around the world at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga. to peacefully protest a U.S. military school that trains Latin American soldiers to slaughter, rape and pillage their way across two continents.
That is, of course, the critics’ description of what was once known as the School of the Americas (SOA), now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security and Cooperation, operated under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense.
The school, established in 1946 to prevent the spread of communism in the Western Hemisphere, maintains that its purpose is to provide education to “eligible personnel” in Latin America while promoting democratic values and respect for human rights.
But those “eligible personnel” are armed soldiers who rape and murder clergymen, women and children, according to Scott Nicholson, who monitors U.S.-sponsored terrorism in Latin America via the nonprofit group Community Action for Justice in the Americas.
Graduates of the SOA, says Nicholson, are responsible for committing what is euphemistically called “human rights abuses.” In December of 1981, for instance, SOA-trained soldiers descended upon the El Salvadoran village of El Mozote in an anti-communist crusade. Over a two-day period the soldiers separated the men from the women and children, and after massacring all the men, separated the women from their children. They, too, were slaughtered, first the women, then the children.
More than a decade later, a United Nations-sanctioned truth commission discovered that of the 143 human remains found in El Mozote, 85 percent were children under 12. The weapons used in the massacre were M-16s manufactured for the U.S. military, and of the 245 cartridge cases recovered from the killing field, 182 bore markings identifying them as having been made for the U.S. government in Lake City, Mo. Though only 143 remains could be identified, the UN believes that hundreds more may have been murdered at El Mozote. Nicholson puts the number closer to 900.
Among other atrocities linked to the SOA was the 1980 murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador. In November 1989, six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were murdered in El Salvador at the hands of SOA-schooled soldiers. It is these murders that protesters commemorate every November outside Fort Benning.
Gail Gilman, a nurse at Community Medical Center, will make her fourth appearance at Fort Benning this weekend. Like many others before her, Gilman once “crossed the line” by stepping out of the permitted protest area and onto military property, prompting her arrest. Though the 54-year-old nurse hardly looks like a radical activist, neither, she says, does the 88-year-old Catholic nun now serving time for doing the same.
Gilman was first drawn to the annual SOA protest after she visited El Salvador and Guatemala at the behest of her church, which wanted to make a personal contact with women’s groups in Central America. Gilman made contact, but not the kind she was initially seeking.
After talking with people in both countries, she learned that the U.S. military was training soldiers in techniques, ostensibly for drug interdiction, disaster relief and other humanitarian purposes. Instead, those soldiers were killing innocent people throughout Latin America. The stories she heard during her two-week visit sickened her.
“I was so horrified,” she says. “Those people are well aware of what that school was about.”
Feeling “appalled, shocked, and horrified,” Gilman met with an American embassy official on her visit and asked what was going on. She never received a satisfactory answer.
“When I came out of there, I thought about it during the flight and it hit me so hard, how the people suffered ... and how they still suffer, and how our government was involved,” Gilman says. “And I just resolved that if there was anything I could do to shut down the School of the Americas, I would.”
Now, with help from her friends and fellow church members, and enough frequent flyer miles for a free flight, Gilman will again raise her voice outside Fort Benning.
“My kids have always been supportive. I don’t think they know enough to be frightened,” says Gilman, a single mother with four grown children and a 16-year-old daughter at home. “They actually have been very proud of me. They let me know it.”
Rita Jankowski-Bradley, her husband Clifford Bradley, son Egan and daughter Janina, make up four of the seven Missoula protesters. (Folk singer Amy Martin and University of Montana student Katie Crawley are among the other Missoulians headed for Georgia.)
This will be the first protest for the Jankowski-Bradley family, who have made many Latin American friends over the years, thanks to Clifford’s work in agriculture. “The thing that is really important to me is the people [the soldiers] target are community leaders,” Jankowski-Bradley says. “It’s like they’re our brothers and sisters.”
The protest takes on added significance this year, she says, as the U.S. government battles overseas terrorists while continuing to practice its own form of terrorism at home. “Right now,” she says of the School of the Americas, “I think they’re on very shaky ground. Definitely, people think we have to practice what we preach. This is being done in our name.”
Though the school’s name has been changed and control turned over from the Army to the Department of Defense, Nicholson and other critics still refer to it by its old name. And though military officials say the name change represents a significant shift towards the protection of human rights, the late Georgia Sen. Paul Coverdell called the name change “basically cosmetic.”
Whatever it’s called, Nicholson says that people are still being murdered at the hands of U.S.-trained soldiers. Without these annual protest, the school will continue to train soldiers who will oppress, murder and destroy their own countrymen.
“I feel so strongly about it,” says Gilman about the protest. “If things aren’t right for other people, they aren’t right for us.”