A Deepness of Thought
Seoul - 1991
When I got out of the Navy, I had several weeks of vacation time that I was never able to take. I went on what the Navy calls "terminal leave". I processed out of the Navy but continued to get paid for several weeks. I was technically still in the Navy during this time and I was allowed to keep my ID card. I hopped on an Air Force cargo plane and went to Korea.
At the time, there were videos on the news of large student protests in Seoul. The students would gather on a street at a time and place that was not announced to the public. The Korean government responded with tear gas and water cannons. By the time I got there, the US military had banded its personnel from entering Seoul but I went anyway.
I found the city mostly deserted that day. There were Korean soldiers at most intersections and armored cars with water cannons at the larger intersections. A few businessmen were going to/from work. There were no tourist, women, or children on the streets. No shopping. The museums were open and eerily empty.
For lunch, I bought a bowl of noodles from a street vendor and sat down at a picnic table in a park to eat it. A man dressed in a suit in his late 50's sat down across from me. He was friendly and spoke fluent English. He told me he had been an interpreter for the US Army during the Korean war. He asked me who I was and what I was doing there and I told him. He could tell I was military from my haircut. We talked about politics and Korean history and American culture. I had a map of Seoul and had marked out several tourist places I wanted to see. He studied my map carefully and said he would go with me.
As we walked through Seoul, each time we passed a group of soldiers, he would stop and talk to the squad leader. I could not tell what he was saying but I could tell he outranked everyone we passed. I never saw any protests that day. The whole city was quite. At the end of the day, he rode the bus with me halfway back to the air base I was stay at. He asked me to write down my name and contact information for him, which I did. I got the impression that he was grateful to the US military for saving Korea. I enjoyed our conversations that day and I never had any trouble with him or the Korean government.
Colombia - 1995
I went on a human rights fact finding mission to Colombia with Witness for Peace. There were seven of us, five Americans and two Colombians. There was widespread violence in Colombia and virtually no foreigners. US embassy personnel were not allowed to leave Bogota.
Shortly after we arrived, we found out about a protest that was going on in a small town named Castillo in the Colombian Amazon and decided to go. It was an extremely remote. As we approached, we noticed the small farms were abandoned. In the town we found about a thousand people camped out in the plaza and the Colombian army patrolling the parameter. We shocked everyone when we showed up.
We had a letter from the president of Colombia explaining who we were and granting us freedom to move around the country. We showed it to the Army officer in charge and there was a tense moment where he decided what to do with us. He let us pass. He could just as easily arrested us. Inside the plaza, people were living in tents they constructed out of plastic sheeting. They had been there for a week. Sanitation was poor. These people were substance farmers, peasants, campasinos. The campasinos had put up a rope around the plaza and asked the military to say out of it, which they did. I videoed the whole scene.
They had come in from the countryside because they were being killed by a gang supported by the region's large cattle ranchers. The process was simple. The gang would put a notice on the door of the farmer's house telling him to get off his land. If he did not leave, he was killed. There was a communist rebel group in the area too that was fighting the rancher's gang. The communist would take food and supplies from the campasinos but generally did not kill them. The army actively fought the communist rebels and allowed the rancher gangs to operate freely.
We met with the town's elected communist mayor who was in his early twenties. He was feeding his baby Coca-cola while we talked to him. Several previous majors had been assassinated. He struck me as a nice, honest, simple guy who was either very brave or unaware of the danger he was in.
The campasenos could not hold out much longer. They needed to get back to their farms and take care of their animals. An agreement was reached in which the government promised to help protect the farmers and they went home. We went back to Bogota and debriefed the CIA at the US Embassy. Then we went to Medellin.
The mayor of Castillo was assassinated shortly after our visit. A nun that had helped us get there was threatened and had to leave the country.
In meeting with human rights activist throughout Colombia, I always asked them what I could do, as an American, to help them. The US government had minimal influence in Colombia so this was not an easy question to answer. The answer I got was always the same - "close the School of the Americas".
School of the Americas - 1997
There was a big difference between the Colombian army and the US Army. You could see it in the eyes of the civilians. The Colombians were terrified of their army.
The School of the Americas is a US Army school located at Fort Benning, Georgia that trains soldiers from Latin American. The school has trained some of the world's worst thugs who have committed many massacres. By 1997, documents had leaked showing that the school taught torture techniques. This was before Guantanamo and was a major scandal. Father Roy had created and ran SOA Watch to shut down the school. I joined their protest at Fort Benning in the fall of 1997.
There were thousands of protesters at the gate to Fort Benning and I was among 600 people who walked into the base. We were quickly arrested. We were taken to a fenced field. We were processed at a tent where our pictures and fingerprints were taken. We were treated well. We were given hot soup and sandwiches. A school bus was driven in so the elderly could get out of the cold. After about six hours, we were released.
The Army decided to prosecute 21 of the 600 of us. These were the people who had trespassed at Fort Benning the previous year and I was not among them. I watched the trial. The Federal judge was demented and could not stay awake during the trial. The only thing he was capable of was declaring a guilty verdict and sentencing the maximum. The 21 charged spent six months in jail each. The judge had no business being there and should have been forcibly retired. But the Army knew this would happen and did it anyway.
The protests continued with thousands of people and hundreds of arrests and prison sentences to people who were acting selflessly on their consciences. The Army changed the name of the school but nothing else about the school changed and it remains open today. The protests continue.
Today the US has Guantanamo and probably secret CIA prisons were we torture suspected terrorists. I would not have imagined this possible twenty years ago. We seem to have done a serious backslide on human rights. I have kids now so I do not do protests anymore. Maybe I will do protests again when my kids are older.