San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

A death in Iraq changes Tico family forever

Mélida Arredondo pressed her hand to a  pin  of  Brian  on  the  right  side  of  her chest.  Brian  Arredondo,  she  said,  committed  suicide last December after suffering through years  of  depression  over his brother’s death. She moved her hand to the left, touching the pin of Alexander Arredondo. He died on Aug. 25, 2004, at age 20, in Najaf, Iraq.

After Alexander’s death, Costa Ricans Carlos and Mélida Arredondo became activists. That activism, shared within the family, has helped changed U.S. policy. It led to meetings with U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Grandfather’s Footsteps

Alexander Arredondo enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps after high school, shortly before the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. His mother, Victoria Foley, told The Patriot Ledger newspaper in Quincy, Massachusetts, that Alexander wanted to be a Marine for “the challenge,” and because his grandfather served in the same branch. He would use his enlistment to help pay for college.

Alexander’s  father,  Carlos,  and  stepmother, Mélida, who live in Boston, Massachusetts, supported the decision, although they disagreed with it. “We would send him care packages,” Mélida said. “And we would give out addresses for how to get in touch with him to all sorts of people. I used to work at a  clinic, and we used to have this group of  elders who would write letters to him constantly so that he would feel the support. And  when he died it was a terrible loss.”

This month, the couple returned to Costa Rica to visit family and talk about the possibility of war with Iran.

Last Saturday, Mélida and Carlos, 51, stood with a small group of demonstrators on a crowded sidewalk next to Plaza de la Cultura in downtown San José. Occasionally, the discussions drifted from Iran to the Arredondos. A 14-year-old boy from the Caribbean port city of Limón asked about Mélida’s background. Mélida, who grew up in New York but has family in Costa Rica, reached at the pins and told the story.

The boy’s father told him: “See how the war affects everyone, everywhere?”

Andrés Mora, 17, spent a few minutes talking to Carlos. “We should be supporting them,” Mora said. “It’s not fair.”

The Visit

On his 44th birthday, Carlos thought he was receiving a grand surprise when a military van pulled into his driveway. The father of two had been anticipating a “happy birthday” phone call from Iraq when the van showed up. Three military officers exited the car. Alexander did not appear.

The officers approached Carlos, informing him that his eldest son had been killed.  Lance Cpl. Alexander Arredondo had secured a two-story building in Najaf when a sniper bullet struck him. The Marines told Carlos they were sorry.

Carlos asked the officers to leave. He didn’t believe what they were saying. He pleaded with them to go. They did not leave. Carlos went into a frenzy. He went into his garage, grabbed a canister of gasoline and a torch, smashed in a window of the military van and set the vehicle on fire.

The flames also caught Carlos. Second-degree burns scarred 26 percent of his body. Carlos watched his son’s funeral from a stretcher.

The U.S. government did not charge Carlos for destroying the van. Instead, the military changed its methods of informing families about deceased soldiers.

Another piece of legislation changed because of Carlos, who immigrated to the U.S. illegally in 1980. In late 2004, then-President George W. Bush signed a bill permitting the parents of soldiers killed in action to become legal immigrants. Alexander’s death made his father a U.S. citizen.

“They didn’t know what to do with me so they gave me my citizenship,” Carlos said. The citizenship came in 2006, a qualification that made it easier for the family to exercise their First Amendment rights. Now nobody could deport Carlos for his outspokenness.

The exploding van story gained national attention. Carlos and Mélida were popular faces at anti-war rallies. Plenty of newspapers wrote articles on the shaggy-haired Costa Rican who traveled the country dragging an empty casket draped in a U.S. flag. Carlos filled the memorial with reminders of his son – old photos and his son’s dog tags and boots.

A third governmental change came on Aug. 7, 2011. U.S. lawmakers renamed a post office in Jamaica Plain, outside Boston, after Alexander Scott Arredondo. Two months after the dedication, the U.S. military began withdrawing the last of its troops from Iraq.

A High Price to Pay

For years, the Arredondos protested a war “started on a lie” about weapons of mass destruction. Brian joined in his parents’ efforts. However, he struggled finding ways to deal with his own depression after his brother’s death. For Brian, the close of the Iraq War accentuated the family’s loss. Alexander never would be coming home. On Dec. 19, 2011, 24-year-old Brian killed himself.

“They were only two and a half years apart in age,” Mélida said. “[Alexander’s death] was hard on him, very hard on him.”

Seven weeks have passed since Brian’s suicide. The Arredondos keep themselves going by speaking out against U.S. conflicts and fighting for the rights of current soldiers – the commandos in Afghanistan, the young recruits serving in posts around the Middle East, the officers still in Iraq as contractors. Mélida speaks of the high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder among troops, the large number of homeless veterans and the lack of spousal assistance for soldiers that are overseas. She and her husband worry that Alexander and Brian died in vain.

“We continue talking about Alex and Brian because we don’t want them forgotten,” Mélida said. “It turns into a number or a monument, like the Vietnam War, and past that, people forget. We’re here to say ‘no.’ War impacts all of our lives, even here in Costa Rica.”

Carlos carries two permanent reminders of how his life changed the day Alex died. He rolls up a sleeve and a pant leg to show where his flesh remains pinkish and gummy, his skin seared with a marker of that day more than seven years ago.

He also takes out his Costa Rican and U.S. passports. Inside the Costa Rican passport, he still is called Carlos. He flips open his U.S. passport to display his other name: Alexander Brian Arredondo.

“When they granted the citizenship, I decided to change my name after my sons,” Carlos said. “I had a very high price to pay to have citizenship.”

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