For military families who have lost loved ones in Iraq, watching Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speak to students at Columbia University showed just how disconnected certain factions of American society have become to the sacrifices of their sons, daughters, parents and spouses.
“I am very disappointed that he was invited to speak at such a prestigious university,” said John Ellsworth of Wixom, Mich., whose son, Marine Lance Cpl. Justin Ellsworth, died in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004.
Ellsworth, a sergeant with the Wolverine Lake Police Department, didn't expect that Ahmadinejad would find an audience in the U.S. “I think American decency should have kept him from speaking at Columbia. He should never have been given the opportunity,” he said.
"There is no consideration for people who have sacrificed so much," said Patricia Roberts of Lithonia, Ga. Her son, Army Spc. Jamaal R. Addison, was the first soldier from Georgia to die in Iraq. Roberts said she considers the Iranian president a “terrorist” and said she was "appalled" when she first heard of his speaking engagement at Columbia.
"How can we allow him to come here, to speak to our children, when he has already said that if we go there, he will kill us?" she asked.
Columbia President Lee Bollinger’s scathing introduction of Ahmadinejad was little comfort, Ellsworth said.
“I think it was a weak attempt to deflect criticism, that just confused people as to why [Ahmadinejad] was speaking there in the first place,” he said. “If Bollinger truly felt that way, the invitation would never have been sent.”
The uproar over Columbia's invitation to the Iranian president was not unexpected; Ahmadinejad has refuted the Holocaust as a "myth," has called for the destruction of Israel, and has publicly threatened the United States. On Monday, he denied that Iran discriminates against women and was derided loudly by the audience when he said there are no homosexuals in his country.
But for military families, the discussion was personal. The U.S. has accused Iran of supplying surface-to-air missiles and explosively formed penetrators — the devices used as roadside bombs that have killed so many American troops — and other advanced weaponry to the Shiite insurgency in Iraq, with the express intention of killing American soldiers. For parents like Ellsworth and Roberts, the specter of Ahmadinejad being shepherded through New York, the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, was an affront to the tremendous loss their loved ones have endured.
“They are allowing a known terrorist to come into our country," Roberts said. "Isn't this why we can’t pull out of Iraq, so that the terrorists don’t come here?”
Roberts said the U.S. government should have done more to deter and condemn the Columbia engagement. “You’re telling us that you’re keeping our troops over there so we don’t have to fight them on our soil. Then why are they allowing them in our country?”
“I felt a terrible insult that he wanted to lay a wreath at Ground Zero,” Ellsworth said. He said he felt that the victims Ahmadinejad wanted to “honor” were the hijackers who flew the planes into the World Trade Center, and that the Iranian leader intended the image of him laying a wreath at the site to be a message to terrorists.
Roberts said she was particularly upset that the university that invited Ahmadinejad was an institution so identified with New York.
"I am originally from New York. For me, it was a double whammy, what happened in New York and what happened to my son," she said.
Roberts' son, Spc. Addison, served in the 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company based out of Fort Bliss, Texas. He was killed on March 23, 2003, the fourth day of the war in Iraq, when his convoy was ambushed by enemy forces — the ambush made famous by the dramatic rescue of Pvt. Jessica Lynch.
Lance Cpl. Ellsworth was serving as a combat engineer with the 2d Platoon, Company A, 2d Reconnaissance Battalion, 2d Brigade Combat Team, 1st Marine Division. He was killed on Nov. 13, 2004, while trying to defuse a roadside bomb in Fallujah. He was awarded a Bronze Star posthumously for saving 11 of his fellow soldiers before he died.
If it takes losing a son in combat to find common ground between a small-town Michigan police sergeant and a Georgia grandmother, the perspectives through which Ellsworth and Roberts viewed the Iranian leader's visit may also represent the widening rift the war in Iraq is slowly creating in this country.
Ellsworth is the vice president of Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission, an organization that works to promote the good works and accomplishments of U.S. troops in Iraq. He became involved in the organization, he said, to provide a voice for grieving military families to counter the anti-war activism of Cindy Sheehan. Roberts, who now is raising a 6-year-old fatherless grandson, said she has always opposed the war.
“I don’t think our children should be in this war,” she said. “You can oppose the war and support the troops. That’s the thing people have to get straight.”
And, while Roberts was passionately opposed to Ahmadinejad speaking at Columbia, she said she feels she understands why Columbia would extend the invitation, and why college students would want to hear him speak.
“We can’t be sure that what our country is telling us is correct,” she said. “They are our enemy because we’ve been told that they’re our enemy. Maybe they were thinking that he will tell us things that are being hidden from us,” she said. “I’m sure a lot of discussion went into it.”
Roberts' fury is directed not at the university but at the government. She said mismanagement of the war and foreign policy created distrust among young people that would spur them to seek out what she called “balance, to hear the other side.”
She is angry, she said, that President Bush, if not able to actually restrict Ahmadinejad’s activities in the country to a United Nations appearance Tuesday, did not speak out more forcefully against the Columbia visit or issue a public statement assuring Americans that the necessary security measures were in place to protect them from terrorist activity during the visit.
President Bush, she said, “should have been the one to step up and say no.”
Ellsworth said he did not think that the government should have intervened, but felt that if the speaking invitation was intended as a demonstration of the First Amendment, the exercise was lost on the Iranian leader.
“I had hoped that he would understand that this is what America is all about,” Ellsworth said. “But he used it for propaganda.”