SAN DIEGO – Michael Lopercio is going to Iraq to hear how ordinary Iraqis feel about the war. Anabelle Valencia hopes to see her son and daughter, who are in the Army. Fernando Suarez del Solar wants to touch the earth where his son was killed.
Each will leave their hometowns on Saturday, forming a small delegation with other relatives of servicemen to bring a message of friendship for the people of Baghdad. They also bring with them doubts about the United States' involvement in Iraq and the Bush administration's handling of the war.
"A mission of peace, that is what we are trying to do," said Suarez del Solar, whose son, Marine Lance Cpl. Jesus Suarez del Solar, was killed in Iraq eight months ago. "The idea is that the people of Iraq understand that we are not their enemies, that we are also suffering in this war."
The group of 10 includes two wives of soldiers based at Fort Bragg, N.C., and four veterans of the Vietnam and Gulf wars, two of whom have children deployed in Iraq. They have raised donations to pay for the trip, and though no special government permission was needed, 25 members of Congress wrote letters of support.
"I have been very confused about what is going on," said Lopercio, whose son, Anthony, is an Army fueling specialist. "You hear lots of conflicting, crossed messages from the administration and the news reports."
Lopercio, 51, said he wants to talk to "average, everyday Iraqis. ... How they feel will ultimately dictate our success or failure there."
The journey — which will have the group meet in Amsterdam, fly to Jordan, and then drive into Iraq — was inspired by 48-year-old Suarez del Solar.
He became an anti-war activist after his 20-year-old son died on March 27 when he stepped on an unexploded U.S. cluster bomblet south of Baghdad.
Suarez del Solar's efforts caught the attention of Medea Benjamin, director of the San Francisco group Global Exchange (search). Over the past two months, they've linked other parents and family members willing to travel to Iraq.
"What we have in common is that we think that the Bush administration has got us into quite a mess in Iraq and we want to help find a solution that will both be positive for the U.S. troops and the Iraqis," Benjamin said.
Suarez del Solar plans to take dirt from the site where his son died and use it to plant a tree near the Marine's grave in Escondido.
Lopercio said his oldest son, 23, joined the Army shortly before the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
"He's got two years left in the service and I'm visualizing that he may spend two years in the most dangerous place on Earth," Lopercio said. "It just doesn't match up with the recruiting poster, does it?"
The greatest challenge in organizing the trip, Benjamin said, was a sense that U.S. soldiers were being punished by commanders if their family members wanted to join them but expressed opposition to the war.
In Baghdad, coalition spokesman Sgt. Danny Martin said he had not heard of such repercussions.
While Martin expressed concern about the safety of the delegation, and for all people in Iraq, he said their effort would be appreciated.
"Any assistance in keeping the entire nation stable and peaceful and secure is more than welcome," he said.
The group is to return Dec. 9, and members hope late to meet with U.N. officials in New York.