What One Father Did When His 20-Year-Old Son Came Home in a
"They Kill Alex":
What One Father Did When His 20-Year-Old Son Came Home in
By Chris Hedges
September 9, 2010
Carlos Arredondo never planned on becoming an
activist. But when his son came home in a flag-
draped casket, he had no choice.
Carlos Arredondo, a native Costa Rican, stands in a parking
lot of a Holiday Inn in Portland, Maine, next to his green
Nissan pickup truck. The truck, its tailgate folded down,
carries a flag-draped coffin and is adorned with pictures of
his son, Lance Cpl. Alexander S. Arredondo, 20, a Marine
killed in Iraq in 2004. The truck and a trailer he pulls
with it have become a mobile shrine to his boy. He drives
around the country, with the aid of donations, evoking a
mixture of sympathy and hostility. There are white crosses
with the names of other boys killed in the war. Combat boots
are nailed to the side of the display. There is a
wheelchair, covered in colored ribbons, fixed to the roof of
the cab. There is Alex's military uniform and boots, poster-
size pictures of the young Marine shown on the streets of
Najaf, in his formal Marine portrait, and then lying, his
hands folded in white gloves, in his coffin. A metal sign on
the back of the truck bears a gold star and reads: "USMC
L/CPL ALEXANDER S. ARREDONDO."
"This is what happens every week to some family in America,"
says Carlos. "This is what war does. And this is the grief
and pain the government does not want people to see."
Alex, from a working-class immigrant family, was lured into
the military a month before Sept. 11, 2001. The Marine
recruiters made the usual appeals to patriotism, promised
that he would be trained for a career, go to college and
become a man. They included a $10,000 sign-on bonus. Alex
was in the Marine units that invaded Iraq. His father,
chained to the news reports, listening to the radio and two
televisions at the same time, was increasingly distraught.
"I hear nothing about my son for days and days," he says.
"It was too much, too much, too much for parents."
Alex, in August 2004, was back in Iraq for a second tour. In
one of his last phone calls, Alex told him: "Dad, I call you
because, to say, you know, we've been fighting for many,
many days already, and I want to tell you that I love you
and I don't want you to forget me." His father answered: "Of
course I love you, and I don't want-I never forget you." The
last message the family received was an e-mail around that
time which read: "Watch the news online. Check the news, and
tell everyone that I love them."
Twenty days later, on Aug. 25, a U.S. government van pulled
up in front of Carlos' home in Hollywood, Fla. It was
Carlos' 44th birthday and he was expecting a birthday call
from Alex. "I saw the van and thought maybe Alex had come
home to surprise me for my birthday or maybe they were
coming to recruit my other son, Brian," he says. Three
Marine officers climbed out of the van. One asked, "Are you
Carlos Arredondo?" He answered "yes."
"I'm sorry, we're here to notify you about the death of
Lance Cpl. Arredondo," one of the officers told him. Alex
was the 968th soldier or Marine to be killed in the Iraq
"I tried to process this in my head," Carlos says. "I never
hear that. I remember how my body felt. I got a rush of
blood to my body. I felt like it's the worst thing in my
life. It is my worst fear. I could not believe what they
were telling me."
Carlos turned and ran into the house to find his mother, who
was in the kitchen making him a birthday cake. "I cried,
'Mama! Mama! They are telling me Alex got killed! Alex got
killed! They kill Alex! They kill Alex! They kill Alex!" His
mother crumbled in grief. Carlos went to the large picture
of his son in the living room and held it. Carlos asked the
Marines to leave several times over the next 20 minutes, but
the Marines refused, saying they had to wait for his wife.
"I did this because I was in denial. I think if they leave
none of this will happen." Crazed and distraught with grief,
the father went into his garage and took out five gallons of
gasoline and a propane torch. He walked past the three
Marines in their dress blues and began to smash the windows
of the government van with a hammer.
"I went into the van," he says. "I poured gasoline on the
seats. I pour gasoline on the floor and in the gas tank. I
was, like, looking for my son. I was screaming and yelling
for him. I remember that one day he left in a van and now
he's not there. I destroy everything. The pain I feel is the
pain of what I learned from war. I was wearing only socks
and no shoes. I was wearing shorts. The fumes were powerful
and I could not breathe no more, even though I broke the
As Carlos stepped out of the van, he ignited the propane
torch inside the vehicle. It started a fire that "threw me
from the driver's seat backwards onto the ground." His
clothes caught fire. It felt "like thousands of needles
stabbing into my body." He ran across the street and fell
onto the grass. His mother followed him and pulled off his
shirt and socks, which were on fire, as he screamed "Mama!
Mama! My feet are burning! My feet are burning!" The Marines
dragged him away and he remembers one of them saying, "The
van is going to blow! The van is going to blow!" The van
erupted in a fireball and the rush of hot air, he says,
swept over him. The Marines called a fire truck and an
ambulance. Carlos sustained second- and third-degree burns
over 26 percent of his body. As I talk to him in the
Portland parking lot he shows me the burn scars on his legs.
The government chose not to prosecute him.
"I wake up in the hospital two days later and I was tied
with tubes in my mouth," he says. "When they take the tubes
out I say, 'I want to be with my son. I want to be with my
son.' Somebody was telling me my son had died. I get very
emotional. I kept saying 'I want to be with my son' and they
think I want to commit suicide."
He had no health insurance. His medical bills soon climbed
to $55,000. On Sept. 2, 2004, Carlos, transported in a
stretcher, attended his son's wake at the Rodgers Funeral
Home in Jamaica Plain, Mass. He lifted himself, with the
help of those around him, from his stretcher, and when he
reached his son's open casket he kissed his child. "I held
his head and when I put my hands in the back of his head I
felt the huge hole where the sniper bullet had come out," he
says. "I climbed into the casket. I lay on top of my son. I
apologized to him because I did not do enough to avoid
Arredondo began to collect items that memorialized his son's
life. He tacked them to his truck. A funeral home in Boston
donated a casket to the display. He began to attend anti-war
events, at times flying the American flag upside down to
signal distress. He has taken his shrine to the Mall in
Washington, D.C., and Times Square in New York City. He has
traveled throughout the country presenting to the public a
visual expression of death and grief. He has placed some of
his son's favorite childhood toys and belongings in the
coffin, including a soccer ball, a pair of shoes, a baseball
and a Winnie the Pooh. The power of his images, which force
onlookers to confront the fact that the essence of war is
death, has angered some who prefer to keep war sanitized and
wrapped in the patriotic slogans of glory, honor and
heroism. Three years ago vandals defaced his son's
"I don't speak," he says. "I show people war. I show them
the caskets they are not allowed to see. If people don't see
what war does they don't feel it. If they don't feel it they
Military recruiters, who often have offices in high schools,
prey on young men like Alex, who was first approached when
he was 16. They cater to their insecurities, their dreams
and their economic deprivation. They promise them what the
larger society denies them. Those of Latino descent and from
divorced families, as Alex was, are especially vulnerable.
Alex's brother Brian was approached by the military, which
suggested that if he enlisted he could receive $60,000 in
signing bonuses and more than $27,000 in payments for higher
education. The proposed Development, Relief and Education
for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, is designed to give
undocumented young people a chance at citizenship provided
they attend college - not usually an option for poor, often
poorly educated and undocumented Latino youths who are
prohibited from receiving Pell grants - for at least two
years, or enlist and serve in the military. The military
helped author the pending act and is lobbying for it. Twelve
percent of Army enlistees are Hispanic, and this percentage
is expected to double by 2020 if the current rate of
recruitment continues. And once they are recruited, these
young men and women are trained to be killers, sent to wars
that should never be fought and returned back to their
families often traumatized and broken and sometimes dead.
Alex told Carlos in their last conversation there was heavy
fighting in Najaf. Alex usually asked his father not to
"forget" him, but now, increasingly in the final days of his
life, another word was taking the place of forget. It was
forgive. He felt his father should not forgive him for what
he was doing in Iraq. He told his father, "Dad, I hope you
are proud of what I'm doing. Don't forgive me, Dad." The
sentence bewildered his father. "Oh my God, how can I
forgive you? ... I love you, you're my son, very proud,
you're my son."
"I thought, when he died, my God, he has killed somebody,"
Carlos says quietly as he readied for an anti-war march
organized by Veterans for Peace. "He feels guilty. If he
returned home his mind would be destroyed. His heart would
be torn apart. It is not normal to kill. How can they do
this? How can they take our children?"
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