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Unexpected Friends

Gold Star Mothers reach out to the women of Iraq.

My son, Adam, deployed to Iraq in 2006. I continued on with life’s daily tasks, but he was constantly on my mind. About five months later, I looked out my window and saw two Marines approaching my front door. Adam had been killed. My story is not unlike that of thousands of other military mothers who have faced the unimaginable. Proud of our children, we occupy our time serving those who serve. We rally community support, send care packages and speak to local groups about the military. For many mothers, that doesn’t change even when our worst fears are realized. In a way, we feel as though we’ve been charged with carrying on our children’s work. Last September, I was one of nine Gold Star Mothers – three from Utah, six from South Carolina – invited to Iraq by Families United Toward Universal Respect (FUTURE) and its Hugs for Healing program. For the first time, mothers of U.S. servicemembers would meet Iraqi women who have also suffered loss.  Each mother had a different reason for going to Iraq. Some hoped to find peace or feel closer to the child they lost there. Others wanted to better understand what their sons and daughters had fought for. As for me, I wanted to learn more about the Iraqi people and the country in which my son died.  Though we’d have an outstanding security team, Iraq was still a dangerous place. Putting our families at ease about sending another loved one to Iraq wasn’t easy.  Based in Sulaymaniyah, in the Kurdistan region, we were in country for seven days. We were the Iraqis’ honored guests – the mothers of sons and daughters who had given so much for their nation. They told us stories about life under Saddam Hussein and in the years since. They shared their culture, their history, and their hopes for the future. We visited hospitals and women’s centers, and participated in service projects for women and children. Having had an experience that profoundly changed our lives, many of our Gold Star mothers would probably go back to Iraq if given the chance. Mothers who’d lost children in Iraq now felt deeply connected to the country and its people.

 

Sept. 25, 2010: The pilot’s announcement – “We will be entering Iraqi airspace in three minutes” – was surreal. I was really going to Iraq. My emotions ran the gamut as I realized we would fly past the area in which my son died.When we landed, a delegation of Iraqi women and other officials expedited us through customs and transported us to our hotel. Driving through the city, I saw many scenes that reminded me of my son’s war photos. Other areas looked progressive. Uncertain of what our accommodations would be like, we were pleasantly surprised to find modest, clean rooms with hot and cold running water and air conditioning. In the hotel lobby we were introduced to the rest of our security team, which now consisted of two Americans and eight Iraqi men, in dark suits with sunglasses and earpieces. Feeling a bit nervous, we were escorted to the rear of the hotel, where several SUVs and police vehicles were staged. Our group, and the Iraqi women we would spend the week with, boarded two small buses, which followed the security vehicles with lights and sirens on.In 10 minutes, we arrived at the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), where a long procession of Iraqi women and dignitaries greeted each of us. They expressed deep appreciation for our visit as TV cameras rolled and hundreds of photos were snapped. Our unexpected VIP treatment continued at an elaborate luncheon of delicious traditional cuisine. After the meal, I met an Iraqi woman who survived Saddam’s 1988 chemical-weapons attack. Her husband had been brutally killed by the regime. I was speechless as I listened to her story, and her expression of gratitude for my son’s sacrifice and the hard work of the U.S. military.

I’d been in Iraq not even three hours and already felt connected to people I’d known only from the evening news who lived half a world away. My eyes were being opened to the reality of the suffering of the Iraqi people and how much our military has done for them. I knew without a doubt that I was supposed to be here.

Sept. 26: Today we attended a Women’s Leadership Conference that included women from across Iraq, First Lady Hero Talabani, leaders from Women for FUTURE-Iraq, and Anfal widows of Saddam’s campaign against the Kurds. Joining us were Kurdish Regional Government officials, U.S. Army Gen. Thomas Vandal, Utah National Guardsmen, U.S. soldiers, State Department representatives and other dignitaries.Much to my surprise, during Gen. Vandal’s address, he told my son’s story: “Twenty-one-year-old Marine Cpl. Adam Galvez was injured in a suicide bombing, buried alive under a collapsed building, attempted to rescue other Marines while taking gunfire from the enemy, and returned to duty only to be killed by an IED.” I was in awe that four years after Adam’s death, I sat in a conference in Iraq, where an Army general told his story to U.S. and Iraqi dignitaries and guests.The Iraqi women talked about how they suffered under Saddam and were freed by the Americans from his torture and brutality. “We grieve for your sons as if they were our own,” one woman said. “They are part of us, and now you are part of us.”They spoke of the progress made by Iraqi women and their need to learn how to network in service and support of each another. This is not common among Iraqi women as it is in the United States. They are learning from our examples how to support and serve one another.The languages spoken here are Arabic, Kurdish and English. There are plenty of people to serve as interpreters. With hugs and kisses to accompany the spoken words, there is little difficulty communicating with the Iraqi women. Over dinner this evening, a woman told me that her father, four brothers and fiancé were executed. She said that when the government took their men and killed them, the women were not permitted to cry. If they were caught crying, they would be arrested for sympathizing with a traitor. She said her mother locked herself in a room of their house for three months following her father’s death so she could grieve without being caught. Like so many others, she thanked me for my son’s sacrifice for their freedom.

Sept. 27: Today the Iraqi and American women worked together to assemble hygiene kits, school supplies and newborn packages to be distributed at area hospitals, orphanages, schools and a women’s center. Some made quilts, others made beaded jewelry. We were able to show the benefits of working together for the betterment of the community. At the cancer and maternity hospitals, we visited patients and distributed supplies. We found poor conditions, a lack of proper medication, basic medical supplies and comfort items. Many sick children were without blankets for warmth or to hold close for comfort. Saddened, we left wanting to do something to help.

Sept. 28: The city of Halabja is a 90-minute drive through the countryside on narrow roads, only a few miles from the Iran border. This is the site of Saddam’s 1988 chemical-weapons attack in which 5,000 people were killed within five minutes of the bombs dropping. Our vehicles moved through the tiny streets of this run-down town. People stared as we passed by. Our arrival at the memorial site was somewhat unnerving. Unlike before, our security detail now carried submachine guns. News and video cameras were everywhere. Many people – nearly all carrying weapons – awaited our arrival. Our security briefed us on exactly how to move once we left the bus. We followed every order given, as we felt our safety was at risk. The museum was filled with photos and displays of the dead lying in the streets following the attack 22 years ago. Photos were taken by Saddam’s men to prove the weapons had been effective. Copies lined the walls and in disbelief I looked at each one: a mother covering her child, and both laid dead in the street. The back of a pickup truck filled with dead children who’d tried to escape as bombs fell. As I stared at that photo, a man pointed to himself, then pointed to the picture. He said, “Me.” Another man who spoke broken English confirmed what I believed the man to be saying. He had been one of the children in that truck, the only survivor. He laid in that truck for two days before being rescued, the other man said. We visited the cemetery, where victims who could not be identified are buried in mass graves that contain hundreds of bodies. The rest are in single graves with headstones. Small fences and other makeshift borders surrounded multiple graves of people from the same family. The Gold Star Mothers laid flowers at the base of a monument in the graveyard, and listened to survivors tell their stories and express their gratitude that our sons helped rid their country of the man who had done this to them. It was an emotional moment as survivors gave each mother a pin representing the 5,000 victims. I left realizing the importance of what our military had done for these people and the world.Tonight we spent a special evening at the home of President and Mrs. Talabani. The first lady of Iraq hosted a dinner for the Gold Star Mothers visiting from the United States, along with the women from Baghdad with whom we had spent the week. The day before, Mrs. Talabani had traditional Kurdish dresses made for each woman in our group. During dinner, she told stories of hiding out from Saddam Hussein in the hills of northern Iraq. One night, she heard the sounds of incoming fire and exploding bombs. The next morning, they found an unexploded bomb at the entrance of the building in which they had sought shelter. She also spoke of Saddam’s chemical-weapons attacks and the Kurds’ fight to stay alive.Following dinner, Mrs. Talabani presented each Gold Star Mother with a crystal engraved with this message: “Our eternal gratitude to the mothers who raised the bravest of children, who dedicated their lives to the liberation of other nations ... A Mother.” I will cherish this forever as a gift from the heart of one mother to another.The evening with Mrs. Talabani was uplifting and heartwarming. Her gratitude for us and our children who had died in her country, fighting for their liberation, was genuine.

Sept. 29: Today, the Peshmerga – Kurdish fighters – proudly hosted our delegation at their military base. Sheikh Jafar Mustafa, the Kurdish defense minister, spoke about the significance of the U.S. role in Iraq’s liberation and thanked us for our children’s sacrifice. The soldiers demonstrated their skills with marching drills, obstacle courses and other exercises, followed by lunch and time to visit with the U.S and Kurdish military.

Sept. 30: This afternoon was set aside for a time of quiet reflection and a memorial service for our sons and daughters who had been killed in Iraq. But was another memorial service really what we needed? I wanted to be accomplishing concrete work with the Iraqi people, not memorializing the dead, as so much of that had already been done. Little did I know this day may have been the most important of our week in Iraq.At Lake Dukan, an exclusive resort in northern Iraq, our chaplain offered to serve communion for any who wanted to participate. Six of us moved to a secluded alcove for the service. Each one felt the presence of God in that place. We sang, worshiped and received communion. I thought of my son and his brutal death in this Muslim land, and now I was here, worshiping the Lord. What amazing things God has done to bring me to this moment. We looked up to see our friends – Iraqi women and others who had spent the week with us – gathered all around, watching us worship.We ended the day in a large circle, and each mother took time to speak about her son, reflect, or share a Bible verse that was special to her. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share with the Iraqis what God had done for me. To think that He would take a group of mothers whose children died in war in this country, then bring them to that land to share the love of Jesus, was almost more than I could comprehend. We concluded by singing “Amazing Grace,” with the Iraqi women attempting to join in.There was a different “feel” as we left Lake Dukan. Our U.S. delegation, all in one bus, sang, laughed and danced in the aisle of the bus all the way back to town. Our day at Lake Dukan was one that God had placed on the agenda, a divine appointment. He touched each one of us that day, in the most unlikely way, in the most unlikely place, and no one would ever be the same.  Amy Galvez and her husband, Tony, live in Salt Lake City. The story of their son, Marine Cpl. Adam Galvez, appeared in the May 2007 issue of The American Legion Magazine (“Death, Not in Vain”).

 

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