Kathleen Christ has. Shes coming to Springfield so that her warrior son will come home in peace.
Christ’s son Joe, it seems, just can’t get enough of Iraq. He was there at the very beginning, leading his men in-country just as the 2003 invasion began. “He was reconnaissance — he went in before the war started,” his mother recalls. So eager was Joe to fight that he delayed surgery to repair injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. “He went to war with a shoulder just hanging off him,” Christ (pronounced “fist”) says. Even absent his torn-up shoulder, he could have retired after 20 years in the Marine Corps and sat the struggle out. “He stayed to be with his men,” his mother explains. “He’s a wonderful leader of men. For him, the military is a calling. He never married or had children. ‘If the Marine Corps wanted me to have a wife, they’d issue me one,’ he’d say.”
Joe enlisted while still in high school, thinking that the government would pay for college. More than 20 years later, he’s still a semester shy of a bachelor’s degree in engineering. He retired from the Marines last year, but he’s still in Iraq, working for Blackwater USA, a security contracting firm rife with former SEALs and other erstwhile commandos who typically aren’t allowed to talk about where they’ve been, what they’ve done, or whom they’ve killed. Some of the most dangerous missions in Iraq are reserved for Blackwater employees, who escort political figures and other high-profile targets along roads bristling with improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers. In one of the most unforgettable images of the 2004 fight for Fallujah, the bodies of two Blackwater employees were hung from a bridge by insurgents. The pay is good — $500 a day or more — but there’s more to the equation than money. Joe, his mother says, is a true believer who insists that the cause is indeed noble. “He is so supercharged by the incredible, brilliant people he’s working with,” she says, without a hint of scorn. Christ is proud and sickened at the same time. She’s scheduled to be a featured speaker Saturday at a noon peace rally in Springfield at the federal building at Sixth and Monroe streets. Naysayers are welcome. “I love hecklers,” Christ says. “They’re passionate enough to show up.”
The Springfield rally coincides with the start of a three-day national protest in Washington, D.C., sponsored by United for Peace & Justice, one of the leading antiwar federations. Organizers are hoping to build on momentum created by Gold Star Mother Cindy Sheehan’s recently ended vigil outside President George W. Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch. Christ — a member of Military Families Speak Out, which supported Sheehan’s protest — says that she’ll focus her remarks on vets such as her son. Even if they manage to come home with no visible wounds, Christ says, she worries that veterans have been exposed to dangerous levels of plutonium and uranium used to make armor-piercing munitions. “We’ve got a huge problem here, guys,” she says. “What are we going to do for our kids when they come back?”
For Christ, the war is Iraq is a colossal waste of lives and money. There’s nothing wrong with dying for a cause, she allows, but she’s hard pressed to think of any war in American history that’s been justifiable: Not World War II. Not World War I. Not even the Civil War or the American Revolution. And certainly not the war in Iraq. All, she says, were waged to benefit monied interests, she says, and she doesn’t trust politicians to do the right thing, despite a growing groundswell in Washington against Bush’s Iraq policies, even within the GOP. “I’m exhausted politically — I have no confidence in the Republicans or the Democrats,” she says. “Like Warren Buffett said, the war is over. The rich won.”
Christ understands that hers are not popular sentiments, not even in her own family. Joe is “mortified,” she says. Her other three children and their spouses are evenly divided. One daughter hangs up the phone when her mother starts preaching peace. The last family get-together, on Mother’s Day last year, was less than warm and fuzzy. “It was unlike any family reunion I’ve ever had,” Christ says. “It was really sad. It was stressful. There is no way we can really talk about the war. I think we’re a pretty typical American family, sad to say.”
What Christ wants is an end to the war in Iraq, but what should happen next, she can’t say. All she wants is an end to the fighting. She dismisses “support the troops” sloganeering. Real support, she says, comes from providing food, clothing, diapers, and other necessities to the families of soldiers overseas. “ ‘Support’ is an empty word,” she says. “I’ve been in the trenches supporting them the whole time” — just not in the typical suburban way.
When the war began, Christ went to the woods. Henry David Thoreau had done the same thing more than a century ago because he wished to live deliberately, to confront only the essential facts of life. Christ lived alone in the forest not to get away from it all but to be closer to her son on the other side of the planet. There were no press releases, no placards for peace, no media. She was 59 years old. “I know how deeply peaceful that is for the whole body,” she says. “For me, sleeping on the earth was a big part of it.”
It was March, unseasonably cold, with rain pouring down. Long before anyone had heard of Cindy Sheehan, Christ pitched a tiny nylon tent in Babler State Park, on the outskirts of St. Louis, taking time away from her job heading the St. Louis Aquatic Healing Center, which offers massage and physical therapy. She stayed there for three weeks, coming into town just long enough to tend to disabled clients whose conditions would have otherwise quickly deteriorated. She had learned the benefits of being alone decades earlier, back in the 1960s when her then-husband, an Air Force pilot, was deployed to Vietnam. “The isolation was striking — I really felt like was going crazy,” she recalls. She found solace then in yoga and meditation. Now, as Bush’s war began, she again turned inward. Meanwhile, her father, who does share her opposition to the war, went to church daily and prayed for her. “I was not excited about going to a public park, for crying out loud, but I had no choice,” she says. “I had one finger in home and one in hell, in Iraq. “I sent him and his troops energy.”
For peace in Iraq
United for Peace and Justice sponsors three days of protest in Washington, D.C., beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 24. Scheduled speakers include Cindy Sheehan, NAACP Executive Chairman Julian Bond, commentator Jim Hightower, U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey, NBA player Etan Thomas, and singer Joan Baez. For details, go to www.unitedforpeace.org or call 212-868-5545.
Springfield’s Rally for Peace takes place at noon Saturday, Sept. 24, outside the federal building at Sixth and Monroe. Speakers include Kathleen Christ from Military Families Speak Out and local musician Frank Trompeter. The event is sponsored by Pax Christi Springfield.