Interview and photographs by Eugene Richards
EXCERPT FROM WAR IS PERSONAL
I remember the war in Nicaragua in the 1980s, the Contra scandal, the weapons for hostages. Oliver North took the blame for Ronald Reagan. I remember when a bomb blew up in Beirut and kill about two hundred Marines. I watch them on the TV searching for them, carrying the bodies out on stretchers, pieces of them. And what I learned of Vietnam in my country? I never understood what they was fighting for. Costa Rica, it was my home when I was a boy, and we have the same climate, same weather, and I was afraid the United States would someday come to Costa Rica and do the same thing. So, when my son told me at age seventeen that he was going to join the service, I said, “Oh, no,” and he said, “Don’t worry, Dad.”
His mother knew the whole time, was supportive the whole time. They told me last, I guess because they know how I was feeling. The Marines had an office in the high school and the recruiters know everything, know who comes from divided families, especially when the father’s not around. They offer Alex thousands of dollars for signing up and help with college. Though we share custody, one parent can sign; his mother sign the paper. From that moment on, of course, I had U.S. Marine bumper stickers on my car, flags in my home, you know, supporting, letting people know, even though I didn’t want him to go. Alex went to basic training, then more training in California. Then, because he wasn’t being told anything by the military, he began asking me for information about the Middle East, about what the president is saying.
Next thing I know, my son is being made ready for urban combat. Next thing, he’s on the way to Kuwait, on the way to Iraq, and I’m at home learning there’s no nuclear armaments there; there’s none of them. I’m starting to learn all this and my son is on the way there. So much happen. I have two TVs at the same time, the radio on. I can’t go to sleep. I’ve been married with Melida seven years, used to drive a bus, to New York City, and sometimes I worked as landscaper and painter. I stop working. I was worried, very worried, by reading all the newspapers and concentrating too much on the war on the TV. I see how my son got from here to Iraq, see them prepare for invasion, see sandstorms, how they reach the Tigris River, and two Marines got killed, and my son was traveling inside a tank that was very noisy, a lot of fuel smells. All along, I see the Minister of Information for Saddam Hussein on TV say, “I’m going to kill all of them.” I see all the sadness, see how they kill, see how the Marines move through the dark alleyways, kick doors, blindfold people, while afraid most of the time for snipers and bombs. I was all the time calling the Marines and the Red Cross, asking them about the situation. I hear nothing about my son for days and days. It was too much, too much for parents.
Next thing I know, I see pictures of soldiers rolling into Baghdad, people at the side of the road saying hello, welcome, and I was very happy. And I say, “Thank God.” The statue go down, then they catch Saddam, and I see the President of the U.S. landing on the air carrier with big signs saying, “Mission Accomplished.” And I say, “Oh my God, it’s over. The war is over.”
It was the 25th of August in 2004. It was the day of my birthday and I was expecting a phone call from Alex, which he never miss to say, “Happy Birthday, Dad.” My mother start baking a cake, and I was working outside with my cell phone in my pocket waiting for that phone call when I saw the Marines get off the van. For a moment, it was an exciting moment, for I thought it was a surprise on my birthday. And my happiness was overwhelming. Next thing, the Marines are approaching and asking me if I was Carlos Arredondo. I don’t understand why they was asking me that, and I don’t see my son anywhere. I ask them, “Are you guys here to recruit some kids, because I have a second son, named Brian, my sixteen-year-old?” And they answer, “No, we’re here to see the family.” The Marine said, “I’m sorry, I’m coming to notify you that Alexander Arredondo got killed in combat.”
At that moment, not expecting those words, my world tumbled and I stopped breathing. I felt my heart go down to the ground and rush up through my throat. I just run from my house, first to the backyard, looking for my mother to tell her what these men were saying. And she run to try to talk to them—but she only speaks Spanish—while I was trying to call Maine to reach Alex’s mother. Brian answer the phone, but all I could say, because I was in tears, was, “Sorry, I’m sorry, they’re telling me Alex got killed.” And Brian said, “I know that, I know.” “How do you know that? How do you know?” “Because the Marines, they’re here right now, and when I saw them coming, I know.”
Then I run back into the house, and I remember grabbing Alex’s picture to give it to my mom. And I remember seeing the uniforms and I ask the Marines to please leave, leave. “Can you please leave.” Maybe I thought if they did leave then none of this was happening and everything would be normal again. I don’t know. I went to the backyard and I cried, then call my wife Melida, who was working down the street, to tell her what happened. I told her to come home please. Then, with all these feelings of confusion in my head, I once again ask the Marines to leave the house. And they answer that they are waiting for my wife. But at that moment, I wasn’t exactly sure what they said, so I went into the garage and got a hammer. I got a hammer and ask them again to leave, then walk towards the van, wanting to smash it, all the time hearing the Marines telling me, “Sir, don’t do that, don’t do that,” and my mother yelling in Spanish, “Carlos, Carlos, we already lost Alex.” And I’m asking myself, “What’s going on, what’s going on, help me God,” and I saw the hammer in my hand and pounded it hard into the ground. I sat behind a tree crying, when I think to call Alex’s recruiter, Sgt. Martinez. I have his number in my phone. I call him, said, “This is Carlos Arredondo, Alex’s father,” and ask him to please help me. “The Marines are telling me Alex has died.” The voice on the other side say, “Sir, you’ve got the wrong number.” I look and the phone say, “Sgt. Martinez.” Pretty sure it was his voice, I call back and by the time I say the words, “Sgt. Martinez,” he hung up on me again. I got so angry, and I can’t believe it was happening, and I went to my garage and get a five-gallon can of gasoline that I keep for my lawn mower, also grab the acetylene torch like they use for welding. And with one in each hand I walked out, and I once again ask for the Marines to leave my house. And they… I don’t really remember what was the answer, but they didn’t move from there. So I approach the van, pick up the hammer, and there was my mother screaming and yelling, and I bang at that window so hard I cut my arms and lost the hammer. And there’s my mother pulling the gasoline can away. I chase her, got it back, open the van door, pick up the hammer and begin banging everything inside the van—the computer, the dashboard, the seats, the roof, throwing everything, everything from the van. When I have nothing else to throw, I find the five gallons of gasoline on the floor and began pouring it everywhere, everywhere. I was splashing my body, my legs, my clothing. The fumes were so strong I couldn’t breathe, though the windows were broken.
I am with one leg out of the van, holding the acetylene torch, with my mother pulling at me, when I lost my balance. I tried to grab the handle on the van, but what happens was I press the button, which ignite the torch. Next thing was an explosion that threw me out with a lot of fire, and I was falling head down on the ground, involved in flames. And not knowing all this time what happen to my mom, I stand up, run across the street, until one of the Marines jump on top of me, on my back. And I was screaming, “Momma, Momma, Momma,” because my socks and my feet are burning, my shirt is on fire. As they drag me away from the van, something blew up. A big bang. And I continue screaming, yelling for my son, Alex. “Are you sure that was Alex? Are you sure?”
The day of my son Alex’s wake, I was on a stretcher because of the burns, on lots of medication, so I don’t remember many people. I remember hugs, shaking hands, and I remember sitting in the ambulance outside of the funeral home for two hours, waiting for my ex-wife, not wanting to see my son’s body by myself. When I first approach the casket, I thought it might be hard to recognize him, because we didn’t know yet how he died, what killed him. We hadn’t learn yet that he had a wound in the temple of his head, so that he had a three-inch-wide hole in back of his head. But it was him. And seeing him laying flat in a casket, I thought, he’s not breathing and that he looks a little different, a little older, that his hair is a little bit longer. Wanting to reach him, I was lifted off the stretcher and climb up to kiss him, to touch his head, his hands, his fingers, his shoulders, his legs, to see if they were still there. I lay on top of the casket, on top of my son, apologizing to him because I did nothing for him to avoid this moment. Nothing.
This piece was excerpted from War is Personal (Many Voices Press). One of America’s greatest documentary photographers, Eugene Richards is the author of books including Cocaine Time, Cocaine Blue (1994) and The Blue Room (2008), and the recipient of awards including the Robert F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Journalism Award for coverage of the disadvantaged.