A Year Of War, Terror And Iraq
Rodriguez’s family, shown at a street renaming ceremony in his honor, believe he died “honorably”. Tribune Photo by Azi Paybarah
By Azi Paybrah and Liz Goff
In Queens, it has been a year of tears, debate and preparation since the war in Iraq began last March.
This week, as the city’s law enforcement and emergency personel conducted the largest terror drill since the Sept. 11 attacks, debate rages on Capitol Hill, and a Queens family continues to mourn the loss of their fallen son, the questions remain – how many more familes will grieve? Were we misled into Iraq? Are we any safer than we were before?
A Year Of Mourning
For the Rodriguez family in Maspeth, the war in Iraq has meant the ultimate sacrifice.
Corporal Robert Marcus Rodriguez, a 21-year-old Marine who grew up on 59th Drive, was killed a year ago this week — the first casualty of Operation Iraqi Freedom from the borough and the City.
Rodriguez’s sister Hyda Hernandez-Lopez told the Tribune this week that her brother’s grave at Long Island National Cemetery has become a seamless portion of the landscape.
She said of the graves there, “you can’t tell where one ends and one begins.”
But the hurt that the Rodriguez family feels is still as fresh as on March 25, 2003.
The emotional front line on the Iraq issue is inside the Rodriquez home, where a family mourns, remembers, and copes with the loss of the city’s first solider.
A three foot table that once held the flower wreaths, scented candles and photos of Rodriquez, 21, has now turned back into a dinner table and homework station for many of the 17 nieces and nephews he left behind.
Supervising that homework was Lopez, Rodriquez’s older sister and Godmother. Her five children, all under nine years old, are learning to live without their uncle, even if they don’t fully understand what it means to die. Lopez said her three-year-old daughter Chantel tells people her uncle is dead, but then asks where he is.
Rodriquez was one of four soldiers in the Marine’s First Tank Battalion whose vehicle plunged off a bridge into the Euphrates River on March 25, according to the Department of Defense. The search for the crew was delayed several days by fierce desert storms and gusting winds. Later that week, Rodriguez and his crew were found.
Even with her family’s military background, they were caught off guard by the news of Rodriguez’s death. Lopez said, “It never entered our minds that he’d get hurt. We thought he’d go to war and come right back.” Lopez said their sister Glenda “has been in the Navy for 16 years and hasn’t been in any of the wars.”
Reflecting on the debate over the quality of evidence the President used in his argument for the war, Rodriguez said, “His death was very honorable regardless of the fact if we should have been there or not. I hope the war was not an error, and we weren’t out there killing innocent people.”
Above his heart, Rodriquez had his mother’s name Amary Ilis tatooed with a flower.. Lopez said their mother “lost the will to live.” Also tattooed on Rodriguez’s well defined arms were the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima in World War II and three firefighters – one from Queens – raising the flag at Ground Zero.
For the families of Roger Ling, Robert Rodriguez and Wilfredo Perez, all Queens soldiers killed in Iraq, it too was a year of unreconcilable loss.
The Vote, One Year Later
Also wrestling with the year anniversary of the Iraqi conflict is the Queens’ Congressional delegation. Four of the six delegation members voted for the war, prompted by what they now consider “misleading” intelligence reports supplied by the White House.
A year ago this week, Bush offered Sadaam Hussein of Iraq a 48-hour ultimatum to leave his country, saying, “Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.” He went on to charge that Hussein’s government “has aided, trained and harbored terrorists, including operatives of al Qaeda. The security of the world requires disarming Saddam Hussein now.”
A resolution introduced in Congress this week seeks to endorse the Bush Administration’s actions in Iraq over the past year. Congressman Gregory Meeks said, “If this were a resolution praising our warriors instead of using them as a pretext for sanctioning the President’s after-the-fact arguments for going to war, I would vote for it.” Meeks, who voted against giving President Bush authorization to use force in Iraq, visited the country, and concluded, “We can’t afford to stay, and we can’t afford to leave.”
He said the resolution, introduced by Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, is “steeped in hypocrisy and self-congratulatory bravado while refusing to address the false pretenses upon which the Iraq war was launched…”
The other Queens Congressional representative to oppose the war, Nydia Velazquez, said, “…I believed the decision [to go to war] was based on faulty information.”
A spokesperson for Congressman Joe Crowley, who voted for the war, indicated the Jackson Heights representative will support the resolution. Crowley’s office said the resolution “affirms that the United States and the world have been made safer with the removal of Saddam Hussein and his regime from power in Iraq.”
Congressman Gary Ackerman, who sits on the Foreign Relations committee, said, “It appears the administration hyped intelligence, lied to us and to the American people in order to get the anxiety level up, and to make more popular the need to go into Iraq.”
He added, “They showed us misleading information…[but] I would not have voted differently.” Ackerman explained: “The fact that he was evil and did the things he did were reason enough to step in.”
The War On Terror Continues
Fears of another terrorist attack were heightened following the subway bombing that killed 200 people in Madrid this week. Days later, the city held their largest anti-terror drill for first responders in Shea stadium, responding to what they hope will never happen – an explosion during a crowded Mets game.
Rifle-toting cops stood sentry outside the stadium on March 14, during the drill organized by the City’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM). Approximately 2,000 firefighters, cops and other emergency responders raced to Shea after radios blared with the word of an explosion inside the stadium.
Within minutes, paramedics, environmental specialists and other responders filled the stands, treating 300 “casualties” – people who had taken their places under large chunks of Styrofoam designed to resemble exploded pieces of the stadium. Doctors at 60 hospitals citywide treated more than 700 other victims of the mock attack.
Inside the parking lot, triage centers arranged for the drill bore resemblance to the images of Sept. 11, when Shea was transformed into a large-scale receiving center.
Security expert Robert Strong said, “In terms of communication alone, the police and fire departments displayed an impressive new system that allowed rescuers to talk to each other – a far cry from the system in place on Sept. 11.”