By Stacy Bannerman
t r u t h o u t | Report
Thursday 03 August 2006
"Open the casket. We need to see what's inside."
Carlos Arredondo spends most of his days traveling up and down the East Coast with a flag-draped coffin. He takes it to parades and protests, schools and state fairs. Today it's in front of the Russell Senate Building, next to 78 pair of combat boots representing the number of US troops killed since June 15, when Congress voted to "stay the course" in Iraq. One week later, Military Families Speak Out launched Operation House Call on the front steps of the Cannon House Building.
This week we moved to the Senate side, where two Capitol Hill police have spent the past twenty minutes going over our event permit and making calls to headquarters. The flag-draped coffin passed the security checkpoints on the National Mall, and got an initial "OK." Now that it has come to rest at the entry of the building where Senator John Warner (R-Va.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has his office, the casket is a problem.
Ten military family members, including three Gold Star parents, are gathered around the coffin, which has a photo of Carlos's son, Alex, on the lid. Alex was killed in Iraq in August of 2004. We watch as Carlos methodically removes his boy's boots from the lid and hangs his son's uniform, bedecked with the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, on the crossbars of the Operation House Call sign.
We know Alex's body isn't in the glossy wooden box, but we still hold our breath when Carlos lifts the lid. The two officers observe stoically as he pulls out Alex's soccer ball, followed by two of his favorite childhood toys. When Carlos retrieves a fuzzy Winnie the Pooh bear in camouflage, one of the cops loses his composure, and removes his mirrored aviators to drag a hand across his eyes.
I cannot bring myself to look at Gold Star parent Al Zappala and newly-minted member Gilda Carbonaro, who watched a box like this being lowered into the ground of Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery on May 23rd, 2006. The coffin contained the remains of her son, Sgt. Alessandro Carbonaro, a Marine in the Second Reconnaissance Battalion. Sgt. Carbonaro was serving his second tour of duty in Iraq when he was hit by an IED, which caused severe burns on over 60% of his body. Gilda was at the military medical center in Landstuhl, Germany, holding her boy in her arms when he died.
The Capitol police inform us that Carlos and his coffin have got to go. Now. It's not listed on the permit and apparently the "stay the course" strategy applies here, too, because they tell us they can't make any changes or exceptions.
But when I ask the officer if we can keep the large American flag that was added to our vigil this morning, he flip-flops and says, "That's not a problem."
"Are you sure? Because I know it's not on the permit either."
"Yeah, well, it'll be fine."
The policy on the Hill: fly the flag, forget the dead.