|My nephew Russell Walkup picks me up in his six-seat, interior rollbar, sporty van. "Cool!" I exclaim, (so much for eco-savvy choices!) and clamber in. Russell ties me into my seat with various padded straps and we roll through Portland in search of dinner. We choose Jake's Seafood, near famous Powell's Books, and settle in for a fancy meal in the old-fashioned, dark wood and white tablecloths, restaurant.
Over seafood pasta and filet mignon and red wine, Russell tells me the story of how he managed not to be sent to Iraq when he was called up in early 2003 with his Marines Reserves unit. First he explains some details of his work life in Camp Pendleton, as a corporal in charge of younger privates. "I tried not to pull rank," he says, "I figured if some guy was a private first class and he had good ideas [about the administrative work they were doing], he should have a chance to do what he wanted. The only time I pulled rank was when buddies of mine thought they could get out of something," such as night guard duty. As he speaks, I have another image of soldiers, not as killers or victims, but as workers, figuring out small ways to maneuver within, to lessen the effects of, a rigid hierarchy.
As the time of invasion drew near, Russell's staff sergeant posted the list of his platoon and told his men to indicate whether they "wanted" to go or not. As if invading Iraq were a field trip! Russell and two other marines, independently of each other, indicated "NO." The staff sergeant confronted him afterward: "This is a mistake, right?" "No, staff sergeant." Later Russell's commanding officer argued that he should go for the good of his platoon, to make sure everyone came home alive. Since Russell worked in adminstration, the usual "blood brothers" myths were less than compelling and he again declined. Finally the staff sergeant told him, "Just because you marked no doesn't mean I can't send you." Russell refused to be intimidated, and the rest of his platoon left without him.
Russell is concerned that I not come away with an image of him as a lonely heroic resister. About his motivations: "I knew my mom didn't want me to go [to Iraq] and that was pretty important to me." He was less than tightly bonded with his fellow Marines Reservists: "Some of them were pretty immature... I didn't really want to be with those people." I ask about the verbal abuse and extreme swearing in the Marines and he shrugs it off with, "Well, you have to consider the source." Like my brother Doug [his father], Russell has a cheerful, even temperment that I admire, never more so than as I listen to him describing encounters that might have overwhelmed a less secure person. He also analyzes the appeal of the Marines for young men who come from dysfunctional families, and recognizes that the strong security and identity the Corps offers them was less meaningful to him, coming from a strongly bonded and affectionate family.
Our conversation continues to his plans to leave his insurance job in Oregon City, and move to Costa Rica to start a business taking tourists to kayak, surf and hike (hence the specially outfitted van.) Fluent in Spanish, with a clear business plan including a reevaluation of objectives every fiscal quarter and a bus admin degree, Russell seems to me as well-prepared as any young person taking on such an ambitious goal might be. His older brother Joshua is going to join him for two months, as they drive from Oregon to Costa Rica, a trip that seems almost mythical (and very difficult) to me. I tell him I'm proud of him and invite him to visit John and me on his way south.
Then I ask him: "Is part of your going to Costa Rica that you want to leave the US?" He admits that it is (not that there aren't plenty of positive reasons to want to be in Costa Rica.) He mentions two issues: punitive drug laws and the lack of real rehabilitation for most people, and frivolous lawsuits. His politics are more libertarian, less clearly antiwar, than mine. He's dubious about the US leaving Iraq abruptly and not willing to join me in calling for immediate withdrawal, yet he doesn't buy the pretexts for the continuing occupation, either. He doesn't seem bitter about the US, yet he is ready to leave the country for an unknown amount of time. He seems shrewd and self-protective to me, but at the same time friendly and eager for new experiences.
Russell's warmth and caring really emerge when I talk a bit about CODEPINK and the Mother's Day vigil and following month of actions in DC. His politics are different, yet he encourages me warmly. He is following his own path, and he respects that I am following mine.
I don't see Russell often, and am so happy we have had a chance to talk privately and connect before he leaves for Costa Rica. Only one thing troubles me about our conversation: that we have scarcely spoken of Iraq. As we get ready to go, he says something again about not being a hero for refusing to join in the invasion. I remember how quiet, serious and uncharacteristically subdued he was when he visited John and me in April 2003, and I reply: "Don't selll yourself short. You knew the invasion was wrong." He nods, and I let it go at that.
End the war in 06,
"Democracy isn't something you have.
It's something you DO."
-- author unknown
"Take your face out of your hands
And clear your eyes
You have a right to your dreams
And don't be denied"
-- Ben Harper, "Better Way"
from "Both Sides of the Gun" CD