Anti-war Alameda Woman's Trip to See Son Serving in Iraq has Surprises for Both
by Joe Garofoli
Susan Galleymore had traveled 7,472 miles from Alameda to search for her son in Iraq and was close to finding him. The Army Ranger had urged her not to come. He wouldn't even tell her where he was stationed. It was too dangerous, he said.
Mother and son were united for a brief 90 minutes after she showed up outside his base. Photo courtesy of Susan Galleymore
On Feb. 1, seven days after she arrived, the 48-year-old woman was outside the U.S. military base where her son might be. Her car idled among a dozen waiting to be inspected. She stepped out, her face covered in a borrowed hijab, the traditional head scarf worn by Muslim women. She approached a gun- toting U.S. soldier as he inspected a car.
"I'm coming up behind you, I mean you no harm," she said. She pulled out her U.S. passport. "I have business here and I want to speak to your sergeant."
"Ma'am," the guard said firmly, as he whirled toward her. "Get back in your car, ma'am!"
Galleymore held her ground. Six soldiers moved toward her. "I will do that as soon as I talk to your sergeant," she said, and pulled down her hijab.
"You're American," one of the soldiers said.
The tension melted. Soon, she was inside the gate, hugging her son.
Galleymore had done what some military parents only consider during their sleepless nights: She went to Iraq to find her son and see for herself how he was doing. And the 90 minutes they spent together, she said, was well worth the danger.
"I wouldn't change a thing," Galleymore said. "But I felt sad when I went home. I was going back to my safe little home, while all of these lives are being destroyed over there."
The weeks before and after Galleymore's 10-day visit to Iraq have been a complex transformation from the personal to the political. Her quest to find out about her son has evolved into trying to understand what Iraqi mothers, as well as other U.S. military parents, are going through.
That journey has been by turns lonely, satisfying and moving. It has cost her close friendships, given her new ones and complicated her relationship with her active-duty son Nick. Some objected to her post-trip writings about Iraqis who told her of how "jittery GIs shoot Iraqi civilians in the streets," as she mentioned in one online essay.
Galleymore prefers not to use Nick's last name so that he is not harassed by his colleagues for her anti-war views. She requested the same anonymity for her daughter, who likewise doesn't share her mother's opinions on the war. But others do, including the U.S. and Iraqi parents who've shared their concerns in a series of interviews that Galleymore is gathering for a book. Many are listed on her Web site, www.motherspeak.org
Galleymore insists her project is not about election-year politics. She would like to see the troops come home and opposes the U.S. occupation but is not actively campaigning for any political candidate. She recently appeared at a news conference sponsored by the group that coordinated civil disobedience in San Francisco last month. And she traveled to Iraq with the women-founded peace activist organization Code Pink, whose self-described mission includes "giving President Bush a pink slip."
But she said her journey is about reconciliation, not partisanship. It was about shining a light on what is happening to U.S. children in Iraq -- those serving in uniform -- and the Iraqi families whose lives have been affected by the invasion, from the five U.S. soldiers and four American contract workers who were killed Wednesday by Iraqi insurgents to the many thousands of Iraqis who have died at American hands.
"What was most striking was how isolated the soldiers are over there," she said. "They're not interacting with the Iraqi people that much."
Susan Galleymore didn't expect her son to join the Army, and she worried when he was sent to Iraq. Chronicle photo by Carlos Avila Gonzalez
Her goal was to interview Iraqi mothers and to find her son -- even though three days before she left, he had begged her not to come. It was too dangerous; the landscape was littered with bandits and homemade explosive devices, he said.
Nick was prophetic. During their 12-hour ride into Baghdad from Jordan, one of the three cars in the convoy was pulled over and its occupants robbed. No one was hurt.
The group's first few days were filled with visits to hospitals, orphanages and politicians and a ground-level view of the occupation. Galleymore was devastated by the story she was told by an Iraqi mother: The woman, pregnant at the time, had been riding in a car with her family when, she says, U.S. soldiers shot and killed three of her four children and her husband.
A few days before they were about to leave, she received an e-mail from her son. Nick had relented. He said if she wanted to see him, his mother should contact his base's public information officer. Galleymore did. A journalist friend helped her find the location.
After the scene outside the gate, Galleymore met some of her son's friends inside. They couldn't believe she was who she was.
"You mean, you're his mom?" one asked incredulously as he was about to call for Nick.
"Yeah," Galleymore said. "But don't say that. Say, 'Susan's here.' "
Of course they didn't follow instructions. The call went out on the two- way radio: "Hey, Nick. Your mom's here."
Twenty minutes later, Nick arrived. He was dressed in full gear and smiling broadly. He hadn't seen his mother in five months. They embraced, and Galleymore gave him the See's nuts-and-chews candy, Power Bars and fruit drinks from REI that she had carried halfway around the world for him.
They talked for 90 minutes alone. Nick showed his mom around the base a bit, even accompanied her to see the view from a guard tower. Galleymore said there was no hostility; they didn't talk politics. They were just in the moment, mother and son. Every few minutes, Nick would shake his head and say, "I can't believe you're here."
"The only thing I told him was, 'Don't do anything in Iraq that you'll be ashamed of in the future,' " Galleymore said.
They embraced and exchanged "I love you's," and she returned home. She had seen where he was and even met some of his fellow soldiers.
But reactions to her trip have been mixed -- especially after she began writing a Weblog and essays that have spoken frankly about shootings of Iraqi civilians, overcrowded hospitals and young GIs who may be suffering emotionally and physically. Some longtime friends, even a few who contributed to her Iraq trip fund-raiser, have stopped talking to her. She doesn't know why.
Many military parents have ripped her, saying she embarrassed her son and put herself in harm's way. Other mothers have contacted her wanting to know when the next trip is.
"She did what any mother in her position would do: She said, 'The hell with it, I'm going,' " said Marianne Brown in an interview. The Michigan mother, whose 21-year-old son is serving in a military police unit in Iraq, contacted Galleymore after she returned from Iraq, wanting to go find her son.
U.S. military officials strongly urge parents not to go to Iraq. Instead, they should contact the stateside representative of their child's unit, said 82nd Airborne spokeswoman Master Sgt. Pam Smith. There are innumerable ways for an untrained civilian to be harmed in such chaos.
"I'm a mother, too, so I know how she feels," Smith said. "But it is extremely dangerous over there."
Danger seems irrelevant to parents concerned about their children, and about other children they see in Iraq, said Code Pink co-founder Jodie Evans, who was on the trip. "You're not thinking about the danger. You're thinking about seeing your child."
Galleymore was one of the lucky ones, Evans said. She's been to Iraq with parents who have left without seeing their children.
The best news for Galleymore is that Nick is on his way home, due to arrive in the next few weeks. But she said that he was unhappy about some of his mother's writings about her trip.
In one essay, Galleymore asked for others to appreciate that the soldiers are in a dilemma, "caught in a military culture that encourages the numbing of most emotions but anger. Whip up enough anger in young men emotionally isolated, denied friends, family, lovers, even civilians clothes, physically exhaust them, nourish them inadequately, expose them to extreme temperatures and violent behavior, confine them to base and portray everyone else as murderous and you create impossible stress."
Nick told his mother that wasn't his experience. She doesn't know how they'll get along when he returns.
"I don't know if he hasn't been responding to my e-mails because he can't, or because of something else," Galleymore said.
Even after meeting halfway around the world, Galleymore's relationship with her son is in some ways as complicated as it was before he left. But she knows they'll eventually understand each other; they're mother and child. She hopes that Americans eventually achieve the same with Iraqis.
Her weblog is on www.motherspeak.org
. It includes interview from other military parents as well as info on the upcoming military draft. I give her credit for her bravery. I can't imagine how I would handle it if my son was there. The fact that he just turned 18 and I am hearing more and more talks of a draft terrifies me.