Last summer when cable news made Cindy Sheehan the face of all those U.S. families who have lost a child in Iraq, communities of color rallied around her but could not help but wonder whether the majority of the American public cared as deeply about their loss. Latinos, for example, are sacrificing not only some of their finest young men to this war but their young women as well, women like Puerto Rican Lizbeth Robles.
When General Nelson Miles landed in Puerto Rico on July 25, 1898 at the head of U.S. invasion forces, his words resonated with the same imperial arrogance we have grown accustomed to hearing from George W. Bush: “We have not come to make war upon the people of a country that for centuries has been oppressed, but, on the contrary, to bring you protection, not only to yourselves but to your property, to promote your prosperity, and bestow upon you the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our Government.”
Ever since then the service of Boricuas (Puerto Ricans) in U.S. wars has been tinged with great irony. Passing out of the grip of one colonial power (Spain) to that of another brought rewards for a select few on the island but little respite for the majority. For the majority, the shifting stages of colonialism have meant limited opportunities and inequality for over a hundred years.
Moreover, the primary role assigned by the United States to Puerto Rico from the beginning as a strategic military outpost plagued the island with a hyper-militarized culture that included everything from environmentally disastrous installations such as the one at Vieques to a continuous siphoning off of its youth into the ranks of the U.S. armed forces.
A century after their homeland passed into the hands of Americans bearing gifts, young Puerto Rican men and women are fighting and dying in another war claiming to export democracy. To date over 230 Latinos have lost their lives in Iraq, including 47 Puerto Ricans. Early last year, the first young woman from the island died from injuries suffered in a vehicular accident. The official Pentagon press release read: “Spc. Lizbeth Robles, 31, of Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, died at the 228th Command Support Hospital in Tikrit, Iraq, on March 1.”
The story of Lizbeth Robles teaches us much about young women in today’s “volunteer” army. The daughter of a working class family, she became a leader in her church and an accomplished athlete. Robles did well academically and went on to college but after one year was unable to pay the tuition at the American University and transferred to Arecibo campus of the University of Puerto Rico where she was able to receive financial aid and complete her degree.
Her brother recalls that after expressing dissatisfaction with the jobs available to her she sent away for recruitment videos and decided to enlist. She told her mother to pray that she would pass the entrance exam. Her mother’s response was less than enthusiastic. As quoted by Javier Colón Dávila of the El Nuevo Día newspaper, her mother said: “I thought, Lord, Lizzie has her dreams but if it is not your will and if they are too dangerous, don’t let them come true.” No wonder military recruiters have admitted publicly that the biggest obstacle to their enlisting Latino youth is the Latina mother.
According to her friend Pfc. Leila Groom, Robles enlisted in 2000 to “help others.” Whenever her cousins asked her why she had joined the Army, she replied, “Because I like it.” Scholar Gina Pérez of Oberlin College who conducts research on Latinas in Chicago has found that many young women of color believe one of the few ways in which they can gain respect is by joining JROTC and ultimately the military. These sentiments, often heard from working class youth who enlist, are far removed from the life experiences of most of those in the antiwar movement and poorly understood even by some counter-recruitment activists.
Young people with limited opportunities looking to “make a difference” or “to make their parents proud” are the savvy recruiter’s primary targets. Middle-class activists whose message is a simplistic “Opt out” or “Don’t enlist” but who cannot offer viable alternatives are unlikely to have an impact. As Kimi Eisele wrote on the AlterNet website about a young Chicano in Tucson she tried to mentor away from the military: “What I can’t dispute is that the feeling of being wanted and needed is, for a young man like Anthony, more powerful than the fear of death. And much m ore immediate than the ambiguous promise of a middle-class future” (http://www.alternet.org/story/23953).
Liz Robles went on to serve in Korea and Uzbekistan before being assigned to Fort Carson, Colorado. From there she was deployed twice to Iraq, the last time as part of a support unit providing security for trucks transporting fuel throughout the most dangerous areas of the war zone. Although women are not technically given combat arms occupations, assignments such as that of Robles account for many of the killed and wounded. On February 28 of last year the vehicle she was riding in with fellow Puerto Rican Julio Negrón flipped over. She was rushed to the military hospital in Tikrit and passed away the following day.
La hermanas de Lizbeth (Lizbeth’s sisters)
According to DoD numbers, women made up about 17% of active duty and 25% Selective Reserve personnel in 2003. Over 70% of active duty women were under the age of twenty-one. Although enlistment rates have fallen for women since the invasion of Iraq, military boosters often invoke the illusion of equal opportunity and fairness in the military as if the one place where affirmative action and even “feminism” have triumphed is the armed forces.
But the situation for women in the military is often dangerous. It is not uncommon to find women in Iraq carrying out assignments that have little or nothing to do with their training. Last summer, for example, three women 20 year-old Dominican-born Ramona Valdez, a Marine corporal; Navy Reservist Petty Officer and single mother Regina Clark who was trained in food service; and Marine Holly Charette trained in mail handling were temporarily assigned to an entry control point in Fallujah in order to search Iraqi women. All three were killed on June 23 by a suicide bomber who attacked their vehicle.
In addition to the increased numbers of women soldiers in harm’s way (over 50 have died in Iraq), other short and long-term hazards lay in wait. After conducting a four-year long study of over 2,500 veterans and active duty personnel, Dr. Maureen Murdoch of the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis found that 80% of women surveyed had experienced some form of sexual harassment (15.5% had experienced sexual assault).
In her memoir Love my rifle more than you: Young and female in the U.S. Army, former sergeant Kayla Williams writes: “A woman soldier has to toughen herself up. Not just for the enemy, for battle, or for death. I mean toughen herself to spend months awash in a sea of nervy, hyped-up guys who, when they’re not thinking about getting killed, are thinking about getting laid. Their eyes on you all the time, your breasts, your ass-like there is nothing else to watch, no sun, no river, no desert, no mortars at night.” According to Williams, the pressure to simply surrender to the sexism is often overwhelming.
Callie Wight, a trauma specialist with the Veterans’ Administration in Los Angeles, reports that many women veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan present twin sets of post-traumatic stress symptoms, one stemming from their combat experience and another from being exposed to varying degrees of sexual harassment that range from casual comments to rape.
For young women who discover too late that military life is not for them or that they can no longer support a mission such as the occupation of Iraq there are few good options. Aimee Allison, a resister during the Gulf War and now a counselor with PeaceOut.com, said last November at the press conference for Katherine Jashinski, the first woman resister in the Iraq conflict: “I know many women who are afraid to speak publicly because they do not want to be harassed Some women take drugs. Some get pregnant to buy time. Some just go AWOL.” The dire circumstances described by Wight, Williams, and Allison are often more difficult for women of color.
Despite the harsh realities for women in the military, some like Lizbeth Robles decide to make the military their career. Many do so out of the most traditional forms of patriotism. Others find a vocation in the military. Still others discover a sense of agency not afforded them by repressive domestic situations, traditional attitudes that women belong at home, or limited job opportunities on the island.
So for large numbers of young Puerto Rican women and men military service will continue to be an attractive option. But even those who claim to see no contradiction between their participation in military adventures like the one in Iraq and the history of their island cannot escape the irony of their decision to enlist.
As Lieutenant Laura Lopez wrote on a website dedicated to Boricua servicemen and women: “I am a full blood Puerto Rican woman. I am from Guaynabo and graduated from the University of Puerto Rico. I am in the United States Air Force, but very proud of my island and culture.” The paradox contained in that “but” begins to explain the robust anti-militarism and counter-recruitment movements on the island.
Apologists for the war in Iraq describe it as a selfless act designed to bring democracy to the Middle East. From the perspective of Latin American history and the history of Latinas and Latinos in the United States, the war in Iraq looks more like another chapter in a long history of colonial exploitation and senseless bloodshed. As Puerto Rican scholar Ana Celia Zentella puts it: “The pain of serving in the imperial monster’s war machine in order to further your education and feed your family is the ultimate trickery of colonialism.”
When we recall those who enlisted for the best of motives only to lose their lives in foreign adventures with false origins and disastrous outcomes, the verses of the official hymn of Lizbeth Robles’ hometown of Vega Baja are especially painful: “Más dulce que la miel es tu recuerdo/cuando lejos estoy, pueblo querido/ Mi alma te la envío en un suspiro/y en viaje hacia el ensueño en ti me pierdo” (“The memory of you is sweeter than honey/when I am far away, beloved home/I send you my soul in a sigh/and as I drift away I lose myself in you”). Whether they know Spanish or not, tonight 2,232 families understand the sadness in these words.
JORGE MARISCAL is a Vietnam veteran and director of the Chicano-Latino Arts and Humanities Program at the University of California, San Diego. He is a member of Project YANO (San Diego). Visit his blog at: jorgemariscal.blogspot.com/ He can be reached at: email@example.com