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Living a message of peace: An interview with the Arredondos

Acting in Faith  |  By Madeline Schaefer, Jul 3, 2013
Carlos Arrendondo with cross
Photo: AFSC

In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, Carlos Arredondo made headlines for courageously rushing to save the lives of victims—distinctive in his cowboy hat, he quickly became the iconic hero amid tragedy. As the dust settled, people learned that Carlos was there with his wife, Melida, honoring the memory of their sons—Alex, a soldier who died in the Iraq War and Brian, who struggled with mental health issues after his brother’s death and eventually took his own life.

Carlos has made headlines before—he was the first immigrant to gain U.S. citizenship through a 2004 Bush policy that expedited the citizenship process for military families. He’s also a recognized antiwar activist who worked tirelessly to demonstrate the human costs of the Iraq war to the American people. He was involved with AFSC’s Eyes Wide Open exhibit in Boston and has connections with the Quaker peace community there.

I spoke with Carlos and Melida about their antiwar and mental-health activism, and how they are working to heal the wounds of violence both at home and abroad.

Madeline Schaefer (MS):  I’d like to hear a little bit of both of your stories.

Carlos Arredondo (CA):  Almost a year later or maybe two months after my son died in Iraq, that’s pretty much where it begins.  One day we found out about Cindy Sheehan going to Crawford, Texas, and going to the ranch and demanding some things from Bush. At that time that’s when pretty much we got involved in the movement.

Melida Arredondo (MA):  But he didn’t go to Texas at that time. After Texas they got on three buses and they left on what was called the “Bring Them Home Now Tour” around the country. And Carlos met up with them when one of the buses came here to Massachusetts.

MS:  What were they doing that was so inspiring and made you want to join?

CA:  Well, you know, going to Washington and trying to lobby with the congressmen and senators.  At the same time, lots of memorials were happening everywhere, you know, the boots, and also you know different demonstrations around the nation right after that.

MA:  Talk about your art.

CA:  At one point we found out the government was trying to hide the caskets— some people got into trouble for taking pictures of a casket in an airplane, remember that?  And that’s pretty much when we said, we’re not going to tolerate this and we’re going to bring a casket to the public to be seen.

MA:  We have a trailer, and had a small box and he put a flag over it. It was fine but he wanted a real casket. So we went to an AFSC meeting— they had Sunday brunches at that time once a month for people in the peace movement. Carlos has never been very good at meetings and sitting still…he’s got ants on his pants. So he went to check on the casket which he had brought on the trailer and parked on the street in Cambridge.  And he saw a gentleman—he was parked in front of a funeral home—and the gentlemen saw him, right, and started talking to him.

CA:  And then he rummaged through his funeral home, and then his warehouse, where he made me choose one of the caskets he had there, because he wanted to give it to me. He just gave me the flag and gave me the casket so I put it in the back of my truck and started driving around to different places around the country, trying to spread the message of the cost of war where they public wasn’t saying much.

MS:  What kind of events did you take it to?

CA:  Well for the Republican convention, in 2008. To Washington DC for marches and protests. September 15 2007, where I was marching and the Guardians of Eagles, a group for war, beat me up.

MA:  We have these large pictures of Alex in his uniform and one of them where he’s lying in state after he’s been killed, and he also had Alex’s boots. Those items were on the casket. Also here in the city of Boston they put in a street sign for Alex, what’s called a Hero’s Square, and they gave a copy to Carlos, so that was also on there. He had taken the license plate off of his car and put it on there as well. But he was pulling it; he had created a hand cart and he was pulling it in the march.

CA:  For those events people were really in shock to see, you know, really close to what can be a funeral.  And seeing my son’s boots and uniform, they could really feel it.

MA:  There was a lot of chatter all over the internet about this. And some people followed you and would talk to you at gas stations.

CA:  Yeah, I put it back in my pick-up truck and I drove down from Boston all the way to Florida on the highway. And then I drove to Chicago and places like that. And people really were getting the message of the cost of war, you know. It was honoring Alex, but at the same time honoring my responsibility as a citizen to participate was important as well.

MA:  And Carlos was the happiest man in the world if there was a traffic jam.

CA:  One of the first things that Obama did was to sign an executive order allowing the families to make a decision when and where the caskets could be taken and photographed. We went and visited many other displays with the casket after that. So we went in different directions talking about what’s going on here in Massachusetts, talking to leaders in Washington. We were involved with the Quakers so we did local marches here in town and meetings and meetings and meetings and figured out what was happening in Iraq and at home and the number of causalities.

MA:  And then the suicide epidemic began being reported more.

MS:  And how did you get involved in that?

MA:  One of the families we’re closest to, their son died the same year as Alex, and he took his life after returning from his tour in duty. He was there at the same time as Alex was, for the first tour. So we were very familiar, we knew their story intimately, and over the years we would talk about our concerns about Brian, our younger son. And would try to get Brian involved in different activities. But Brian became lost after his brother died. Couldn’t hold a job, decided not to go back to school. The street and his friends sort of called him more. And he ended up getting into trouble and being very embarrassed and upset about it.

His original plan was to join the military.  I’m his step-mother, so his Mom, Carlos and I really didn’t want him to do that because we didn’t trust the US government.  So he didn’t.

He had tried to take his life— in ‘06 there was a noose found in his room. He got a little bit of counseling, but in 2011, after getting in trouble with the law and having relationship problems, he ended up taking his life in December 19th of 2011 and he hanged himself.

MS:  What do you want people to know about the larger ripple effects of war and suicide?

MA:  That early intervention is really important. There’s an organization called TAPS, Tragedy Assistant Program for Survivors. We had heard about it but hadn’t reached out because we had other support systems here in Massachusetts. After Brian took his life we went because they had resources for people like us. So when we got there we weren’t the only other family who had a double episode like this, and that there are lots of families dealing with suicides. Their politics are pretty mainstream, but they accepted us as having two military related deaths, which really validated us. And in retrospect we wish we’d brought Brian there because they had other siblings who were struggling too.  If he’d spoken to some other siblings who were dealing with the loss of their brothers or sisters, it would have helped because it’s helped us to meet other families.

CA:  They report that 22 veterans commit suicide a day.

MA:  But there are no figures around the families. But since what happened at the Boston Marathon, six more families have reached out to us who have had a similar situation.

MS:  So it’s really about creating the network of support for people and bringing awareness about the issue.

CA:  We only went against policy before, and helped out in a few ways.  But right now we help out families as well because they need to know what we know.  So for us, we go to different groups, different organizations and groups not just against the war but also here in the community against violence, and with the mothers who have lost their children to homicide.

MA:  I work in public health and I work in a community called Dorchester where there’s a lot of shootings and other types of violence where young people or young adults are killed. Pretty much the same ages as the majority of the troops who are killed in combat. So the act of war is either in the city or overseas, it’s just a different venue.

CA:  Amid all this I had the opportunity to receive the first citizenship granted to a parent who lost a son in war. What happened was that Alex died when I was 44—2004—and in October at the time Bush passed the executive order giving families the top of the line to get citizenship right away. I had the opportunity to change my name to honor my sons as well, so my name is Alexander Brian Arredondo, officially, to honor my sons.

MS:  I’m curious about that, your background. I know that you’re from Costa Rica. How did your experience of moving to the United States and being an immigrant affect your activism?

CA:  My actions reflect the immigrants…it’s challenging for me to have an accent especially with a Spanish name, people say to me, “who do you think you are?”

MA:  That’s part of the reason why he started his visual art. Because it spoke for itself and then they wouldn’t come out with the argument, you know, “get out of here.”

CA:  When I did the “Bring the Troops Home Now Tour,” at the time I was only a legal resident, so I was taking a risk of getting captured in the situation and being deported or something, you know.

MA:  Because of the lack of habeas corpus that was passed with the Patriot Act for residents.

CA:  That’s why I was very careful not to get in trouble and get arrested.  But then when they gave me citizenship, I said oh my god that’s wonderful.  I raised a sign coming out for the ceremony that said “Bring the troops home now,” after the ceremony for my citizenship.

MA:  But my favorite part was in 2005 or 2006 when you went to see the congressional Black Causes and General Wesley Clark was there.

CA:  I made a sign that said “Impeach,” and I walked into the podium where he was talking and the police were saying sit down, sit down, but they just threw me out of the room at that point.

MA:  But when he left the room he ran into Kofi Annan, so that was good.

CA: I believed in my sons and I’m very proud of them.  I miss them very much and everything I was doing at the time was for my son’s memory, for Alex, and at the same time showing Brian that we all can make a difference. But unfortunately Brian wasn’t well. And we miss him very much and it’s very hard to know that we miss him.

MA:  We’ve both learned to be very pushy. It’s really important to cross boundaries.  It might be a little dangerous sometimes and you might beat you up. But it’s important not to just stick within your own comfort zone, and to go to places where there are people who might have different politics. But the compassion is needed.

One of the things that we said to the peace movement on different occasions that it’s not only important to espouse your politics—it’s important to be compassionate to people who might have someone in the service right now, or have lost someone in service.  Because if you start off with, they’re all baby killers, they’re never going to listen to you.

MS: I think a lot of people’s argument for war is that America has to protect its freedom. What would that freedom mean if we didn’t have war? What does that freedom looks like to you?

CA: Let me tell you, I was celebrating that I was back in my country (but I was concerned about the violence in Costa Rica)—because I feel secure here in Boston.  I had just gotten here four days earlier, I had been in Costa Rica. And then suddenly the bomb went off right in front of me.  And I don’t know if you know, but I was involved after the bombing. Having that happen right in front of me, it freaked me out. I felt betrayed.

MA:  We were both traumatized. But the thing that I noticed and then he noticed is that we were sitting in an area where there were Newtown families, where there were other families of the fallen, where there were 9-11 families who had lost their loved ones. So to be with them when this happened was an intense experience. And then afterward, I found out that seven people had been killed here in the city of Boston due to gun violence and that that wasn’t making the news and that those families were suffering.

CA:  Amidst all of this, we understood that this situation abroad in Iraq—I don’t know how often bombs go off in all these countries, this is always happening, this is constantly happening to them and I realized oh my god, I feel bad for these people who live with this every day or every other day.

MS:  You both are so inspiring because you seem to be operating out of this deep well of compassion.

MA:  Well, there have been times over the years where both Carlos and my mental health…we had to get help. A couple of time we both went in-patient and when Brian took his life we both were very worried we were going to go along with him. So we’ve continued seeing our mental health professionals, and we try to be around supportive people who have kind hearts. But we talk about it.

CA:  And that’s what’s taken us to this place or particular events—to do something about it. We’ve been meeting with veterans who have been going through different situations, trying to guide them where they can get help because sometimes they won’t get help, you know. We’re trying to do what we can. We are very lucky that a lot of people allow us to participate and we do what we can to support them as well.

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About Friends Relations

Lucy Duncan and Greg Elliott work together and with other AFSC staff to foster strong relationships between AFSC and Quakers.

Lucy is AFSC’s Director of Friends Relations. She has been a storyteller for 20 years and has worked with Quaker meetings on telling stories for racial justice and of spiritual experience. She attends Green Street Friends Meeting (PhYM) and lives with her son and partner in a Quaker cemetery.

Greg is the Friends Relations Associate. He grew attending North Branch Monthly Meeting in the Poconos of Northeastern Pennsylvania. Greg currently lives in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.