[The following article is excerpted from Disturbing the Peace: Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas by JAMES HODGE and LINDA COOPER, published by Orbis Books.]
Fort Benning, Georgia. August 9, 1983.
The summer sun was finally setting. It was time to act. Time to engage the Salvadoran troops.
Roy Bourgeois was ready, but he was not so sure that Larry Rosebaugh could penetrate base security. Rosebaugh, a gentle Oblate priest who had worked with street people in Brazil, reminded Bourgeois of St. Francis. Even in the battle dress uniform Bourgeois had purchased for him at the local Army surplus store, Rosebaugh did not exactly present a military bearing. It would take a small miracle for the MPs to mistake him for an Army officer.
Linda Ventimiglia, an Army reserve officer, would not be a problem. She and Bourgeois, a former Navy lieutenant, had given Rosebaugh a crash course on military decorum and worked on his salute.
The three had also practiced scaling trees in an Alabama pine forest, and Bourgeois finally decided they were as ready as they were going to be. He went over the details of their plan one last time and then double-checked the supplies: pepper, a rope ladder, tree climbers, a high-powered Sony cassette player with four speakers. And, most important, the tape recording.
As night fell the three set out, dressed as high-ranking officers with insignia also purchased at the Army surplus store. They loaded their equipment into the Land Rover of a friend who had agreed to drive them onto the base.
Bourgeois braced himself as they neared the entrance. The Land Rover had a Fort Benning sticker, but an MP at the checkpoint seemed to eye them suspiciously. Then, to their amazement, he snapped a salute. Theirs were a little shaky. The driver eased onto the base, passing several warning signs that said they were entering a restricted area and unauthorized persons would be prosecuted.
The vehicle stopped near a tank trail in the woods. There, the three quickly gathered their equipment and began walking down the trail that led straight to the quarters of several hundred Salvadoran soldiers.
Soon the lights of the barracks became visible, and the three edged closer, looking around for a suitable tree. After they agreed on a towering hundred-foot pine, Rosebaugh sprinkled pepper on the ground to prevent guard dogs from picking up their scent. Bourgeois, meanwhile, strapped the tree climbers to his boots and began scaling the pine. After he secured his footing, he dropped the rope ladder for Ventimiglia and Rosebaugh. As he did, he broke a branch.
Instantly, German shepherds started barking at a nearby MP station. Within seconds the guards rushed out, hopped into a jeep with two of the attack dogs and sped toward the intruders. The jeep stopped about thirty yards from the tree. It was around 9:30 p.m. and quite dark.
The MPs, armed with assault rifles, began scanning the woods with bright lights; Bourgeois froze while Ventimiglia and Rosebaugh ducked behind a tree. In the tense minutes that followed, beams of light crisscrossed the grounds, but never found them. The MPs finally drove off.
Ventimiglia and Rosebaugh slowly climbed up and then tossed the rope ladder to the ground. Bourgeois anchored the tape player high in the tree, aiming it at the barracks. Then there was a collective sigh of relief; they had gotten into the belly of the beast. Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest, silently prayed that no one would get shot and reminded himself of the reasons they were taking such risks.
It was not complicated. The U.S. military was training a brutal foreign army on U.S. soil. An army that served a small Salvadoran elite who lived in splendor while the poor lived in squalor. An army that had butchered thousands of innocent people, including women and children, priests and nuns. An army that had raped and murdered two of his friends.
Bourgeois knew firsthand what the training meant. As a naval officer, he’d been taught to fire an M-16 and had later encountered hundreds of Vietnamese children maimed by U.S. weapons. As a missionary in Bolivia, he’d seen another U.S.-trained army commit abuses.
For weeks Bourgeois and his friends had been protesting the training of the Salvadoran troops, to no avail. Now, if they didn’t lose their courage, they would take a message directly to the Salvadorans. It was a plan devised to meet the Gospel standard to be as cunning as serpents but as harmless as doves.
The wait in the tree felt interminable. The three kept shifting their weight to get comfortable. Suddenly, the barracks lights went out. Finally, the moment had come. The three steeled themselves as Bourgeois reached up and pressed the play button on the tape player, saying, “Oscar, this is for you.”
Moments later the voice of the dead Salvadoran archbishop, Oscar
Romero, boomed in Spanish from the treetops, shattering the silence
“I would like to make a special appeal to the members of the army and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, each one of you is one of us. We are the same people. The peasants you kill are your own brothers and sisters. When you hear the voice of a man commanding you to kill, remember instead the voice of God: THOU SHALL NOT KILL!”
It was the archbishop’s last Sunday homily, delivered in the San Salvador
cathedral on March 23, 1980. His fateful words had stung the
Salvadoran military and led to his assassination the next day.
Romero’s words again triggered a violent reaction as they echoed through the barracks at Fort Benning, imploring the startled Salvadorans to disobey orders to kill. It was as if someone had poked a beehive. The base was abuzz. Lights beamed. Sirens wailed. MPs with M-16s swarmed over the grounds. But in the darkness they had trouble locating the source of the disturbance, even with the aid of police dogs.
“It was a sacred moment,” Bourgeois later recalled. “Those soldiers coming out of the barracks, looking into the sky, not being able to see us, hearing the words of this prophet.”
Finally, one of the lights fixed on the rope ladder at the base of the pine, and then illuminated the trespassers in the tree. The MPs started cursing and threatening to shoot them down, but even with weapons trained on him Bourgeois stalled for time, hoping to play the entire homily. He shouted down that they no longer had the rope ladder, and as the MPs scurried about trying to figure out what to do, the tape played over and over.
“No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. There is still time for you to obey your own conscience, even in the face of a sinful command to kill. The church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, and of the dignity of each human being, cannot remain silent in the presence of such abominations.”
“In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people whose cries rise up to heaven, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you, stop the repression!”
As the chaos on the ground grew, the dogs started to fight among themselves. A couple of MPs tried to pull them apart, while another started to climb the pine, grabbing branches of nearby trees to pull himself up.
Then another went up with the rope ladder. Rosebaugh, whose perch was lowest in the tree, was taken down first, then Ventimigila. Rosebaugh was strip searched and Ventimigila was gagged.
Meanwhile, the first MP had climbed nearly sixty feet up to get Bourgeois and to shut off the cassette. After Romero’s voice was silenced, Bourgeois started shouting the bishop’s words in Spanish, angering the MPs on the ground.
When he finally descended the tree, a trainer was waiting for him.
“He hit me from behind,” Bourgeois said later, “then threw me up against the tree and stripped me. There were five or six agitated dogs and about ten MPs with M-16s who were shining lights on us. The trainer got in this karate pose and wanted me to get up and fight, but his own men pulled him off.”
As he was led away that night, Bourgeois was largely undaunted: the message had been delivered, the mission accomplished.
The three activists carried no identification. When questioned at the provost marshal’s office, Bourgeois gave his name as Oscar Romero; Rosebaugh, as Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest slain by the Salvadoran military; and Ventimiglia, as Jean Donovan, one of four U.S. churchwomen raped and murdered by Salvadoran security forces.
The three were eventually charged with impersonating officers and criminal trespassing and taken to the Muscogee County jail. There, Bourgeois went on a hunger strike, vowing to continue the fast until the Salvadoran troops left Fort Benning.
The tree-climbing action was vintage Bourgeois-gutsy, controversial and provocative. It would also prove prophetic: it had shone a light on the military base that would soon become the new home of the U.S. Army’s infamous School of the Americas.
The Pentagon was planning to move the Latin American training facility in the Panama Canal Zone to the Georgia military base the following year. Though unknown to U.S. citizens, the school was well known to Latin Americans, who called it the “School of Assassins” for having trained so many of the dictators, torturers and death squad leaders in their countries.
And, as Bourgeois would learn years later, it had trained the Salvadoran officers who murdered the U.S. churchwomen and ordered the assassination of Archbishop Romero.
James Hodge and Linda Cooper are the authors of Disturbing the Peace: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas, published this fall by Orbis Books. They can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org