The blips and flashes of a PlayStation greeted Fernando Suárez del Solar as he entered the Santa Ana Army Career Center on March 15. He cradled a picture of his son Jésus, a Marine lance corporal who died in Iraq in 2003 after stepping on an undetonated cluster bomb dropped by American forces.
About 30 other people squeezed into the tiny recruiting center after Suárez. The office was sparsely decorated. Posters lined the walls. Venetian blinds hung limply. There was a table and a cabinet. An American flag. A rack of pamphlets in English and Spanish stood next to the entrance. And to the side of the rack was a couch and a television topped with toy tanks. A tall, goateed teen sat on a couch, eyes fixed on the television as he thumbed his way through a video combat game.
Suárez and his supporters visited the Career Center two days into their Latino Moratorium March, a trek for peace that started in Tijuana and ends March 27 in San Francisco. Suárez has two simple goals: he wants military recruiters to stop lying to Latino kids about the Iraq War, and he wants Latino parents to understand exactly what's in store for the average grunt who ships off to Iraq.
The protesters stood quietly as the attending officer, dressed in camouflage, finished up a recruiting call. He hung up. He swiveled in his chair and stood. "I don't want my picture taken," the officer said to a cameraman. The cameraman filmed anyway.
"Can I help you all?" the officer boomed. Suárez, who wore his son's dog tags and military-issue desert hat, stepped up.
"I'd like to visit the recruiting office to say thank you for your job," Suárez said in broken but clear English. "But I'm looking for one favor. Please: when you go to the schools, explain 100 percent to the girls and the boys what is it they can expect." He gently but forcefully went on to criticize the military's recruiting tactics and their Iraq mission. "Maybe you know right now they're under investigation," Suárez continued, referring to some recruiters who allegedly forged documents to sign up high school students.
"I don't know nothing about it," the officer stammered. "I just moved out here to California. If you have questions, I will refer you to my higher headquarters so they can give you more information. If you just put down your name and address," he trailed off, before sighing, "I really don't know too much."
"No, no, that's fine," Suárez said, smiling.
Suárez introduced the recruiter to three Iraq War veterans, two of them Santa Ana natives—Joe Lopez and Robert Acosta, who lost his arm in a 2003 ambush. The officer stared at Acosta's exposed stump.
"I am very proud of my boys," Suárez said. "We support the troops. But when you go to the schools, explain. Thank you so much for your time."
"You're welcome," the officer replied.
Others in the crowd then addressed the officer. An older gentleman spoke about his son, a staff sergeant who spent 11 years in the Marines before quitting in frustration over Iraq. "It was a heartbreak for our family because he was the fourth generation that served," the man said. Steve Young, the Democratic candidate this fall for the 48th Congressional District, asked that the Army help disabled veterans like Acosta, who has struggled to secure benefits. A mother said her son, a National Guardsman, had already been deployed to Iraq three times. "I don't want my son in Iraq a fourth time," she pleaded. Another mother said her son "loves this country. He still does. But he never thought he'd be sent to a war that was unjust."
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The officer said nothing as each person addressed him. Then Suárez spoke up again.
"Let me tell you something before I finish," he said. "You're the first Army recruiter office that I have ever visited that had such a beautiful attitude. Everyone else has treated us bad. You haven't. Thank you so much, and congratulations."
Suárez and his supporters quietly filed out of the office. The video game-playing teen never looked up.