Peace grannies rejected for duty in Iraq

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Arrested while insisting to recruiters, ‘Take us, not our grandkids’

PHILADELPHIA — As other grannies and their supporters sang peace songs, spoke out against the war and displayed their colorful banners and signs outside a U.S. Armed Forces Center here, 11 grandmothers tried unsuccessfully June 28 to enlist for service in Iraq.

“Take us, not Philadelphia’s children and grandchildren,” they told the recruiters. “Let them live their lives.”

The 11, members of the Granny Peace Brigade, were Marlene Santoyo, Helen Evelev, Ruth Balter, Zandra Moberg, Kathleen Sjogren, Sue Ellen Klein, Nina Huizinga, Sylvia Metzler, Gloria Hoffman, Sonia Sanchez and 91-year-old wheelchair user Lillian Willoughby.

Their protest here was part of a pilgrimage from New York City to Washington, D.C., celebrating the recent court victory in which 18 “Raging Grannies” were acquitted of obstructing a recruiting station in Times Square where they had attempted to enlist for duty in Iraq. They arrived at the Gandhi Monument in Washington on July 4 where they were joined by women members of Code Pink for a march to the White House to protest the war.

Though at first the Philadelphia recruiters were inclined to let the grannies apply, they quickly changed their minds, despite Moberg’s gift of an apple pie.

While inside the center, the women talked with two young people who came into the office to enlist. After Gloria Hoffman shared some facts about the Iraq war and the deaths of over 2,500 soldiers, high school senior Christine Watson, 17, decided to think more about her decision.

An 18-year-old recent high school graduate told the women his mother was OK with his decision to join the Army. “But what about your grandmother?” they asked.

Both the young people were African American, and unemployment among African American youth is currently over 40 percent here.

The grannies told the young people why they are opposed to war, “especially this war of terror, this war of error,” in the words of one of them.

Santoyo said: “We need a Department of Peace. It’s Afghanistan and Iraq today — will it be Iran next, or North Korea or Cuba? The billions of dollars spent on war could go to schools and health care.”

Turning to the recruiters, Sanchez, a noted poet and author, asked, “My brother, my sister, how do you feel about being in the service?” All replied in the affirmative, citing serving and protecting their country as their reasons for joining. Marine Staff Sgt. Tondrel Birgans told the women the military had bettered his life.

“Do you enjoy enlisting people to be taught how to kill other people?” Willoughby countered from her wheelchair.

Outside the center, Kelly Dougherty, a young woman veteran who served in Iraq, told a very different story about her military service. She recalled being told never to go to the bathroom alone and always to take a female soldier with her. “Rape is rampant in Iraq,” Dougherty said, adding, “When it is reported, many times no one follows up and investigates.”

Telling the women he had to leave for an appointment, Sgt. Birgans suggested they leave, too. “We are here to enlist,” they replied. A Police Department civil affairs officer then gave them two options — leave or be arrested. Soon afterwards the 11 were arrested, escorted into two police vans and taken to a police station.

“We were treated courteously and not handcuffed,” Santoyo said. “They took our information and issued our citations.” The next day the grannies appeared in court and pleaded not guilty. Their trial has been set for Dec. 1.

Outside the recruiting center a contingent of the Granny Peace Brigade from New York City, on their way to the July 4 Washington, D.C., vigil, joined their Philadelphia sisters and supporters in singing familiar songs with new lyrics by the grannies, such as “God Help America,” “Study War No More” and “Let Our Children Grow!”

Holding a large photo of her son, Sgt. Sherwood Baker, killed in Iraq in 2004, Celeste Zappala of Military Families Speak Out noted the rise of U.S. troop deaths in Iraq to 2,527. “If they were the children of the privileged class, this war would be over,” she said.

Asked why and how these grandmothers are able to do what they are doing, Santoyo replied, “It’s not about us. We are reaching out. Older people and all people can make a contribution to build the peace movement. We have to put our life on the line for justice.”

The grannies are seasoned activists. Santoyo, Metzler, Sjogren and Willoughby were among the 160 people who closed down the federal building when the war began in March 2003. They served one week in jail for that action. It was Willoughby’s first act of civil disobedience, at age 89.

“So many people are opposed to this war. It’s time for them to take to the streets,” Santoyo said.