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Pains of the Father

Photo: AP / Wide World

“Today I understand,” says Fernando Suarez del Solar, but there is no joy in his voice, and nothing like triumph. He sucks hard on a Chesterfield filter, and tips the ash into a small, glass ashtray perched on the edge of the computer console in front of him. Suarez is a small, jowly man of 49 with thinning hair, large eyes and a wide, droopy mustache. He wears paint-spattered shorts and a T-shirt bearing an image of Cesar Chavez. His glasses are wired together with a twisted paper clip. He is about to leave for Tokyo, where he has been invited to address a conference of Japanese peace activists. When he returns, he’ll have just five days at home in Escondido before he flies to Venezuela, and then barely a week before he heads out again to Mexico, and then to Washington, D.C. In the few hours that he has put aside to speak with me, Suarez will say these words again and again, no fewer than 10 times in the first two and a half hours that we talk: “Today I understand.”

In retrospect, Suarez can point to many dates as mileposts that mark the path to his current understanding. Of them all, Friday, March 28, 2003, is most significant. At about eight o’clock that morning, when he arrived at work, his boss told him that his wife had just called. His cell phone rang. It was Rosa, his wife, and she was crying. All she could say was “Get over here.” When he pulled into the carport of his apartment complex a few minutes later, Suarez found three Marines in dress uniform standing in his doorway. In the kitchen, his wife, her parents, and his daughter Olivia stood in tears. He asked the Marines what had happened. They asked him who he was. “I am Fernando Suarez del Solar,” he answered. “Jesus Alberto is my son.”

The Marines told him they were looking for Suarez’s daughter-in-law, Jesus’ young wife and the mother of his infant son. They said they were not authorized to speak with anyone else. Suarez demanded that the Marines tell him what had happened to his son. They apologized that they could not. “When he told me, ‘I’m sorry,’” Suarez recalls, “I hit him.”

“Fuck you,” he remembers saying, “you’re going to tell me what happened.”

The Marines relented. “Your son is a hero,” they said. “He died last night in Iraq in combat.”

Three days later, the phone rang. It was Bob Woodruff, the ABC news correspondent, who had just returned from Baghdad. He had been embedded with Jesus’ unit and had interviewed Jesus just hours before his death. “Mr. Suarez,” he said. “Somebody lied to you.”

Suarez speaks almost exclusively in the present tense. This is largely due to the limits of his English, which he has taught himself over the past two years. But to the extent that grief is experienced as the presence of the past — like the portraits of young Jesus in his brass-buttoned uniform, jaw stiff with diffident pride, that still line the living room walls — Suarez’s faulty grammar feels correct.

“I move with my family to the United States in 1997,” Suarez begins. His is not the usual immigrant’s story. Suarez’s father was a congressman, and a professor of history at the most prestigious university in Mexico. As a young man, Suarez moved to Tijuana and started a family. By 1986, he had four children, Carla, Olivia, Jesus and Marisela, and a good job as a purchasing manager in a Tijuana department store. That year, the U.S. government announced an amnesty program for undocumented workers, and Suarez, who had periodically worked north of the border over the years, moved in with his mother in the San Fernando Valley and applied for a green card.

The next year, he moved back to Tijuana and threw himself into political activism, agitating for the distribution of basic services — electricity, water, paved roads, schools — in the poor colonias that ring the city. He crossed the border every evening to work the night shift at a San Diego minimart, crossed again in the morning, took his kids to school, went out to the colonias to organize, slept a few hours, and did it again. One day, when Jesus was about 11, Suarez remembers, he took the boy with him to one of Tijuana’s more hardscrabble neighborhoods. A woman called out to them for help, and when they entered her home, they found a boy of about 6 in convulsions. They drove the child to the hospital, where he died. The boy’s father, it turned out, was a narco, and the child had eaten a bag of his cocaine. That day, Suarez says, Jesus decided that he wanted to become a policeman and devote himself to fighting drugs.

It was only about a year later, when Jesus was 13 or 14, that, while hanging out in San Diego, he was first approached by a military recruiter. “Today I understand the system,” Suarez says, “but at this moment, I understand nothing.” The recruiter told Jesus that if he joined up, he would only have to serve for one year, that his military training would be enough to get him a job with the FBI or the Drug Enforcement Administration, and that he could do more good working from the northern side of the border than with the corrupt Tijuana police force. All of this was false. But “Jesus believe this,” Suarez says, and the boy began pressuring his parents to move so that he could attend high school in the States.

When I tell Suarez that Jesus sounds like a very serious young man, he laughs. “No,” he says. “Jesus is a very funny boy.” He was like “Daniel el Travieso” (Dennis the Menace), he says, always playing tricks and causing trouble. He drank sometimes, and smoked cigarettes, “and I’m no happy,” Suarez says. “But I understand, he is a normal boy. He is, for me, the best.”

Suarez was less than pleased with his son’s military ambitions, but in 1997 the family moved to the stucco apartment complex in Escondido in which they still live. As soon as he was old enough, Jesus enlisted. He left for boot camp almost immediately after his high-school graduation.

Suarez first spoke out publicly against the war in Iraq on Memorial Day of 2003, at a small rally in San Diego’s Balboa Park. It was then, he says, that he gazed back at the years that had passed and understood that his son had been sending him signals. The first came just after Jesus returned from boot camp, in August of 2001. The family had gathered to celebrate his return. His girlfriend Sayne was five months’ pregnant. Jesus, who had been talking about becoming a Marine for years, wore his dress uniform with pride. But he told his father, Suarez says, that he had made a mistake.

Suarez asked him to explain. Jesus asked if Suarez remembered seeing him on crutches during the weekend church services. (Recruits are not allowed any contact with their families during boot camp, but parents are allowed to see them from afar at chapel.) His drill sergeant, Jesus explained, had pushed him to the ground and broken his leg with a kick to punish him for breaking discipline by smiling at his mother during Mass. And the discrimination was constant, Jesus said. “The sergeant, all the time: ‘Move, fucking Mexican, move!’”

After two weeks at home, Jesus returned to Camp Pendleton, and then shipped out for training overseas. His son, Erik, was born in December. Jesus married Sayne in Las Vegas while on leave the following spring. Then in October of 2002, the second signal came. Suarez was awakened by the phone at two o’clock in the morning. It was Jesus calling from outside a military base in Kuwait. He was very drunk, and he couldn’t stop crying. Three days before, two Kuwaiti men had opened fire on Marines training on a small island in the Persian Gulf. They killed one Marine and wounded another before driving off and shooting at another group of Marines, who returned fire, killing their assailants. According to the official account, only three people died: one Marine and two Kuwaitis.

Jesus told his father a different story. He had been in the second group of Marines. They chased their attackers into an apartment building, he said, and opened fire on the building. When the shooting ended, Jesus said, they found not only the two men, but three women and four infants, all slain in the crossfire. Jesus was distraught. “I am a criminal,” he cried.

Suarez begged him to go to the hospital and demand counseling. He already had, Jesus responded. “The fucking doctor told me, ‘Marines kill. Marines don’t cry.’”

Jesus returned two months later. He called late at night from Camp Pendleton asking to be picked up. He had about 10 friends with him who couldn’t afford to travel home. They piled into Suarez’s minivan and, for the next few weeks, slept on the living-room floor. “It’s crazy in the house. Everybody’s happy,” Suarez remembers, laughing.

His smile quickly fades. “When he come back, he’s a different boy.” The next morning, Jesus’s wife came by with their son. After about five minutes, Jesus handed the child back to her, “and runs to his room and cry and cry and cry.” Tears well up in Suarez’s eyes. “It’s not easy for him.”

Jesus was quieter, and less playful. He drank too much. Shortly before he was due to report back to Pendleton, he told his father that his company had been mobilized. He was going to Iraq. The night that Jesus was to leave, Suarez took him outside to the parking lot. “It’s very easy,” he recalls telling his son. “We get in the car and go to Tijuana. Right now. We begin a new life.” Jesus tried to reassure his father: There would be no war, he would be fine, the Marines were being sent solely to intimidate Saddam Hussein. He said goodbye, and Sayne drove him to Pendleton. Jesus would send his father no further signals. “It’s the last time we have any contact with him, February 5, 2003.”

Jesus’ unit crossed into Iraq on March 18, Suarez says, two days before the war officially began. They spent several days guarding petroleum installations en route to Baghdad, Jesus’s friends later told Suarez. On March 27, 110 miles south of the Iraqi capital, Jesus stepped on what his friends say was a “bomblet” — a cluster-bomb submunition. (The U.S. used nearly 11,000 cluster weapons in the early months of the war, each containing dozens of lethal bomblets, many of which fail to explode on impact.) Jesus remained fully conscious for two hours. He died on the stretcher when a helicopter at last arrived to fly him out. The official military “Report of Casualty” given to Suarez after his son’s death said that Jesus was killed by “Hostile Action [as a] Result of a gunshot wound to the head while participating in Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

Between the day the Marines knocked at his kitchen door and the day Jesus’ remains arrived in the U.S., Suarez heard three contradictory accounts of his son’s death. Shortly after he received the official version, he got the call from ABC’s Bob Woodruff, who told him his son had stepped on a DPICM, or Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munition, a small, grenade-like cluster bomblet that had been fired by an artillery unit to the rear. (“Everybody knew what it was,” Woodruff told me later. “No matter what else you hear, that’s what it was.”) Suarez, whose English was then barely functional, understood Woodruff to have said that Jesus had died as a result of friendly fire.

Then, Suarez says, a reporter from the San Diego Union-Tribune, who had also been in Iraq, called and told him that Jesus had died “in an accident.” Officials at Camp Pendleton could tell Suarez nothing. He would not learn the truth until the day of Jesus’ funeral, by which point his interactions with the military had already left him with a very sour taste.

The glass display case leaning against the living-room wall contains a photo of Jesus, his medals and his high-school diploma, folded Mexican and American flags, a form letter from the White House signed with a stamp of George W. Bush’s signature, and a handwritten condolence note from Mexican President Vicente Fox. Jesus was the fifth U.S. soldier and the first Mexican citizen to die in the Iraq war. (He had refused his father’s offers to apply for U.S. citizenship on his behalf. Sayne, Jesus’ widow, later accepted the government’s postmortem citizenship offer.) Vicente Fox himself telephoned Suarez to offer his condolences. Suarez asked him for permission to use the Mexican flag during the funeral services, and the next day an official from the consulate brought the flag to his home.

The American flag didn’t come so easily. Shortly after learning of Jesus’ death, the family decided to bury him in an Escondido cemetery. They were told that the government could only contribute $4,325, though the cheapest burial cost over $7,000. Suarez called a press conference, and soon began to receive donations in the mail from all over the world. Two days later, Suarez says, a military chaplain called him to assure him that the government would find the money to cover the funeral, and to ask him to stop speaking to the media. He did not. Next, the military told Suarez he could not use the Mexican flag in the ceremony. “I say, ‘I’m sorry, but my son is not American. My son is Mexican.’” Suarez stood his ground, and the military eventually gave in.

Early on the day of the funeral, Suarez went to the mortuary. He asked the two Marines guarding the casket to leave him alone with his son, he says, and to open the coffin. They refused, but Suarez was insistent, and eventually they left. Suarez persuaded the funeral directors to unlock the casket. Jesus’ face and head, Suarez found, were unmarked by bullet wounds. He began to undress his son, unbuttoning the jacket, the shirt, the pants of Jesus’s uniform until, he says, “I see the full body of my son.” The fingers of Jesus’ right hand were missing, and the toes of his right foot. His genitals were gone, his legs and stomach badly torn. “I put back on the military uniform, and I never say to my wife and other members of the family what I do.” (They never read the newspapers, he adds.)

But he had solved at least part of the mystery of Jesus’ death: His injuries appeared to be caused by an explosion from below. At the time, he says, he assumed Jesus had stepped on an Iraqi mine. Only later, when soldiers from Jesus’s unit returned from Iraq and visited him at home, did Suarez learn that his son had been killed by an American bomb.

On the bottom shelf of the shrine to Jesus in the Suarez living room sits a figurine Jesus gave to his father to apologize for taking his car without permission — a kneeling, cartoonishly bowl-cut figure with tears streaming from its googly eyes. There’s a cigarette burn on its base, and the words, “I’m sorry.” Beside it is a souvenir-shop sculpture of an Aztec warrior that Jesus bought in Tijuana just before he shipped out. It has become Suarez’s symbol for his son, and provided the name he gave to the organization he created after his son’s death, the Guerrero Azteca Project. The project was originally conceived as a way to distribute the donations Suarez received for Jesus’ funeral to other military families in need, but he later expanded its mission to a broader anti-war activism, and to informing high-school students about military recruitment.

In the months after Jesus’ death, Suarez began receiving invitations from anti-war groups all around the country. He was still working two jobs, at a print shop for a small local newspaper called Mi California, and as a cashier at a 7-Eleven. He accepted enough of the speaking engagements, and missed enough work, that his boss at the print shop gave him an ultimatum — to be at work or lose his job. The manager at the 7-Eleven presented him with the same two options. As he saw it, Suarez says, he had a choice, “to continue my ordinary life or make real significance, so that my son died for something. I don’t like that my son is only a number.” He shakes his head. “I don’t like that people say, ‘Oh, Jesus died for democracy and freedom.’ No no no. And I don’t like that people say, ‘Jesus died for petroleum.’ No. I try to make it significant, and I say that Jesus died for peace, as an example for peace, and I want to work for this.”

Suarez quit both jobs. He has lived for the past two years entirely off donations. “I have no money in my pocket, never,” he chuckles, “but my bills are paid.” He speaks at high schools and universities, and travels constantly. He has been around the world, addressed crowds of thousands, met with congressmen and movie stars. He attended both the Democratic and Republican national conventions in 2004 and can laugh for hours telling stories about sneaking onto the floor at Madison Square Garden during Laura Bush’s speech. He wanted to go to Texas this summer to join Cindy Sheehan, who is by now an old friend, but had no room in his schedule. “It’s humanly impossible,” he says.

In the fall of 2003, Suarez was briefly hospitalized for exhaustion — he collapsed immediately after giving the keynote speech at an anti-war rally in Washington, D.C. A little over a month later, he was on a plane to Iraq with a delegation of peace activists and military parents. He met with Paul Bremer, former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and befriended Sean Penn, who was in Baghdad too. A little boy, Suarez says, died in his arms at an Iraqi children’s hospital. He traveled to the spot where Jesus was killed and, at his wife’s request, he buried a crucifix in the soil. Bob Woodruff accompanied him and brought a camera crew. Suarez later appeared on Nightline, kneeling in the dirt. “I’m feeling very bad,” he tells Woodruff, his lip quivering, his eyes pooling with tears. “My son’s blood is here.” He kisses his hands, and weeps.

On the same episode, ABC aired footage shot days before Jesus was killed. Jesus sits atop a tower, sandbags all around him. He loads .50-caliber shells into a magazine and wears a bandana tied tight over his head. His eyes are sharp and clear. Despite the camera, he seems at ease, confident, and yes, almost mischievous, like he’s thinking of a joke that he can barely wait to tell. “Hopefully we’ll get this done and come home soon,” he says.

Woodruff asks if he isn’t nervous about being so high up, and so exposed. Jesus shakes his head, “No, not at all.”

“Why?” Woodruff asks. “The Iraqis can’t get you up here?”

“Nah,” Jesus answers. “They can’t get us this high.”


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