I first heard of the School of the Americas (SOA) in the early 90’s when listening to a radio interview of Fr Roy Bourgois, a Marynoll priest. He was in the navy and subsequently became a priest. He was assigned to Bolivia. After working with the poor, organizing a health clinic and speaking up after peasants were arrested for union activities. He was threatened by right wing military one night, and was told his safety couldn’t be guaranteed. Upon his return to the USA, he found out that many of the atrocities in El Salvador, Central, and South Americas were carried out by graduates of a US school for the education of South American militaries.
I subsequently heard him speak the Jean Donovan House in Philadelphia several times. He detailed the documentation obtained through the freedom of information act that showed that many of the right wing death squads had been composed of graduates of the SOA. Manuel Noriega, the former dictator who ruthlessly ruled Panama was a graduate. We had to invade Panama to oust him. The subject matter taught, according to some of the former teachers at the school, included assassination and interrogation (torture) techniques.
I have attended local Philadelphia protests, but never was interested in the 14-hour trip to travel to Fort Benning in southwest Georgia. I was moved to attend this year after corresponding with John Heid, a prisoner of conscience here in the Federal Prison here in Schuylkill County. John Heid is sentenced to 7 months for crossing the line and trespassing symbolically protesting the existence of the school He is a 47 year old from Wisconsin, who was inspired to “cross the line” onto the Fort Benning base by the example of the 100 or so who had done so the prior years during the protest to close the school. Fr. Roy spent 18 months in a Federal prison for entering the base and playing a recording of the last sermon of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who had been assassinated by SOA graduates the year before.
There has been a movement in congress to close the school. It has the support of Tim Holden our representative who voted in the minority to cut the funding to the school the last time it was put forward. In an effort to muffle the protest the name was change last year to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. The actual purpose of the cold war relic has not changed. The curriculum is the same, but some courses on ethics have been added which are not mandatory.
I spent some time discussing issues with Lee Rials, Public Affairs Officer for the SOA. He doesn’t deny the history of the graduate’s poor performance. He disputed that the education received at the SOA was the cause. He stated that no one ever proved that the courses taught lead to the atrocities. I argued that the correlation was a strong one, and had endured over the decades in countries from Argentina and Chile, to Honduras, and Mexico. I am not one who would “cross the line” and do prison time. I do admire those who are committed enough to do this prison witness. I met Rev. Ken Kennon at Fort Benning who authored the book “Prisoner of Conscience- a Memoir”. The number this year has risen to 97 who crossed onto the base in civil disobedience. Two of the 97 were on the bus that I took from St. Vincent’s parish in Philly to Fort Benning. The ride was uncomfortable but the company invigorating. One of the arrested was a nun who I had had breakfast with that morning. She was moved to cross the line by the vigil were the names of the victims were chanted and the crowd chanted the responsorial “Presente”, indicating that they were spiritually present and remembered.
I met individuals from all over the nation. Jesuits and their students were well represented since they had lost six priests who were massacred with their housekeeper and her family. I met a member of the religious order in the Catholic Church, which I once belonged to, the De LaSalle Christian Brothers. He was from Rhode Island but was in a mission with a classmate of mine, Bro. Paul, in Guatemala, teaching the poor in a parish school. He told me that my classmate had been deeply affected when another brother, James Miller FSC an American from the Midwest had been murdered by mistake when the soldiers were gunning for him. Schools of the Americas graduates again were responsible.
My believe is we need to do whatever we can to influence the countries of Central America to embrace democratic values, but the autocratic military tactics of the SOA/ WHISC have to stop being taught in our names, funded by our taxes.
Joe Conway, a Temple alumnus, is a licensed psychologist, who had developed and run the KidsPeace program on the Berks County Campus since its inception in 1988. He has worked with emotionally disturbed children and adolescents for the past 30 years.