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This weekend, the Sojourners/Call to Renewal intern program traveled to Columbus, Georgia to participate in the annual vigil and nonviolent direct action events to close SOA/WHINSEC. Be sure to check back often this weekend for on-the-ground updates, and let us know through your comments what you think!

First, a brief background. SOA Watch, an independent organization that seeks to close the School of the Americas (SOA) through vigils and fasts, demonstrations and nonviolent protest, as well as media and legislative work, was founded in 1990. The SOA, which was renamed the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation” (WHINSEC) in 2001, is a combat training school for Latin American soldiers, situated within Fort Benning, Georgia. Many of its more than 60,000 alumni have been implicated and convicted in some of Latin America’s most horrific human rights violations, including the El Mozote massacre, the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, and the 1989 University of Central America massacre.

Event organizers estimate that more than half of recent attendees are college aged and younger. They join a diverse group of faith communities and the nonreligious, local food vendors, and war veterans, all who offer a variety of perspectives on this event. We share their views with you below.

“We’re training them to attack us,” said Jesus Bocanegra, a veteran of the Iraq war, relating that many of the Iraqi insurgents learn new military tactics in similar training schools to WHINSEC that the U.S. military has established for the Iraqi army, and then use them against US forces. The 24-year old from Brownsville, TX, is now traveling around the country with Iraq Veterans Against the War. He explains why he came to Georgia this weekend: “Personally, we’re here because…we got used.”

“There’s got to be something better to do on a Saturday than this,” said a retired army veteran of the Iraq war who declined to give his name. “America is worth preserving.” Acknowledging that he would be a great army recruiter, the Jamaica-born resident of Columbus, GA continued, “I’ve seen some of the worst people become some of the best people in the military.” His U.S. citizenship application is awaiting review by the Immigration and Nationalization Service.

“This weekend, I want to see someone jump over the fence,” said Katie, a senior from Ursuline Academy in Springfield, IL, referring to the acts of civil disobedience conducted by some event participants.

“Half of the people of Columbus don’t understand what the protesters are doing; they think they’re protesting the military, but they isn’t protesting the military, they’re protesting training people to kill,” said Linda Simmons, a 37-year resident of Columbus, GA, whose husband is in the military. She’s selling “Proud to be an American” bumper stickers and water bottles this weekend and is happy for the annual vigil. “People are very respectful; they’re peaceful.” Besides, she says, “This event buys Christmas for my granddaughter.”

“I didn’t expect so many people bashing the President, saying ‘no war’ and stuff,” said a 17-year old senior from St. Joseph’s Academy in St. Louis. “I don’t think our government is intentionally sending these people out to kill and torture,” added one of her classmates. “I think [the problem] is bad communication from both sides, from both the military and the protesters.”

“It’s as much about connecting with people who care about things as it is about SOA,” said Jessica Kierson and Christine Novotny, high school students from St. Vider in Chicago.

“In this globalizing society, the U.S. has a responsibility to the rest of the world, and I think that SOA is a direct violation of that responsibility. The U.S. has a responsibility to advocate for justice, to advocate for peace, to fight a real war on poverty – not the fake war on poverty that was fought in the 60s – and to promote good will. There’s no way anyone could convince me the SOA has anything to do with that mission,” said Taria, a college student from Loyola University Chicago.

This annual gathering of concerned citizens from around the country presents our nation with a recurring opportunity to consider the very real human effects of America’s foreign policy decisions. As Americans’ support for the Iraq war reaches its all-time low, we keep in our thoughts and prayers both our servicemen and women and all those around the world whose lives have been affected by war and violence.

Laurel and Colin Mathewson are 2006-2007 Sojourners Interns.

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