"Grave Diggers" Arrested at Pentagon for Protest of US Army School of the Americas Print
April 28, Washington, DC - Seventeen people, including six Catholic nuns and two clergy, were arrested yesterday for digging a mass grave on the Pentagon parade ground. The grave diggers were part of a larger group who gathered for a vigil to protest the US Army School of the Americas (SOA). A character dressed as Uncle Sam led a procession of 250 religious leaders, veterans, and peace activists around the Pentagon in a silent funeral procession. At the parade ground, a death squad execution was re-enacted followed by the digging of the mass grave that resulted in arrests.

"The School of the Americas has left a trail of blood and suffering in every Latin American country where its graduates have returned," maintains leading SOA critic Roy Bourgeois, a Catholic missionary. "We brought this truth back to the front door of the Pentagon where the trail begins." The US Army combat school, located at Fort Benning, GA, trains 900 to 2,000 Latin American soldier a year.

The SOA has been nicknamed the "School of Assassins" by its opponents because its graduates have repeatedly been linked with assassinations and other human rights abuses in Latin America. Graduates of the Fort Benning school made up more than two thirds of the Salvadoran officers cited by the 1993 United Nations Truth Commission for atrocities during El Salvador's civil war. The SOA's best known graduate, former Panamanian President, Manuel Noreiga, is now serving 40 years in a US federal prison for drug trafficking.

SOA defenders maintain that the Army School's training strengthens understanding of democratic values and respect for civil control of the military. Critics say otherwise. "The School of the Americas has trained leaders in tactics to violate human rights and has done so knowingly and deliberately," writes Munley, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in a letter urging the President, Congress and the Pentagon to close the SOA. LCWR represents 78,000 Catholic nuns across the country.

Pentagon officials had first agreed to meet with a high-level delegation including the LCWR and other religious leaders, veterans, and heads of national peace organizations. But 24 hours before the April 24 meeting, Army officials canceled without warning. A spokesperson from the office of Togo West, Secretary of the Army, told the group that it is now "police to not meet with non-profit organizations to discuss issues related to the School of the Americas." Carol Richardson, a spokesperson for the civilian delegation, was astounded by the response. "Proponents of the School say we need the SOA to train Latin American military because it models the US Army respect for civil control of the military -- yet Army officials refuse to meet with us. What kind of model is that?" she questioned.

SOA critics, including those arrested at the Pentagon, have long maintained that the SOA has been actively teaching Latin American soldiers to kill and oppress their own people. In September 1996, the Pentagon released seven Spanish-language training manuals used at the SOA until 1991. These materials, used to train Latin American soldiers, advocated interrogation techniques like torture, execution, blackmail, truth serum and arresting relatives of those being questioned. The manuals also identified the targets for these methods as religious workers, labor organizers, student groups and others in sympathy with the cause of the poor.

Twelve of the 13 women and four men arrested April 28 were charged with destruction or damaging government property and/or demonstrating without a permit. They are set to appear June 6 in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia. Five were released without charges.

The Pentagon vigil and civil disobedience action was part of a ten day vigil and lobby effort which began April 19. More than 1,000 people, including veterans, religious leaders, peace groups, and other concerned citizens gathered from around the nation to call upon Congress to close the US Army school. Leading congressional opponent of the SOA, Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy (D-MA) has introduced legislation (HR 611) in the House of Representatives that would close the SOA. The bill now has more than 100 co-sponsors. A companion Senate bill is expected soon.

The following people were arrested at the Pentagon for protesting the SOA:

Nick Cardell, Syracuse, NY
Anne Herman, Syracuse, NY
Will Prior, Las Cruces, NM
Ruthy Woodring, Chicago, IL
Sr. Dolores Brooks, Chicago, IL
Sr. Marge Eilerman, Boone, KY
Sr. Mary Kay Flanigan, Chicago, IL
Doug Mayben, Washington, DC
Sr. Rosemary McKenna, Litchfield, CT
Ann Tiffany, Syracuse, NY
Elsie Speck, Carbondale, IL
Laurel Dykstra, Boston, MA
Sr. Carol Gilbert, Baltimore, MD
Sr. Ardeth Platte, Baltimore, MD
Mary Trotochaud, Atlanta, GA
Paul Ferris, Annapolis, MD
Kathleen Rumpf, Syracuse, NY