Parents of Troops Hope to Get Independent Look in Iraq Visit

Times Staff Writer

In late March, Marine Lance Cpl. Jesus Alberto Suarez del Solar died in Iraq. On Saturday, his father began the long journey from the San Fernando Valley to Baghdad, hoping to end the conflict that killed his son.

Fernando Suarez del Solar plans to spend the next two weeks in Iraq, along with a half-dozen other parents of U.S. troops stationed there. Some, like Suarez del Solar, have been vocal opponents of the war and occupation. Others want a view of Iraq unfiltered by the media or the military.

But Suarez del Solar is the only parent whose child died in Iraq.

The trip is being led by Global Exchange, an international human rights group against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Representatives of the group say this is a rare chance for parents to see, for better or worse, the military in action.

"The government of President Bush said that we should not do this trip and that they wouldn't guarantee the safety of the delegation," said Suarez del Solar, 45, who lives in Escondido. "Our answer is, we don't need your security or help. Our protection is our word" with the Iraqi people.

The military does not support the trip, nor is it trying to stop it, said Global Exchange members and military officials. Anyone with a U.S. passport can travel into Iraq and move freely around the country, although the State Department has issued travel advisories warning of the many dangers.

According to representatives of Global Exchange, the military has denied the delegation entry to bases in Iraq -- so there's no guarantee that parents will be able to see their sons or daughters or confront military planners with their concerns.

A spokeswoman for the coalition press office in Baghdad, who declined to give her name, said on Saturday: "On a personal note, I wouldn't want my mother out here for safety concerns, and I wouldn't want to worry about what she's doing."

Suarez del Solar said he was not worried about the dangers. Standing on the lawn of his mother's home in Arleta on Saturday, he called for the United States to withdraw its troops immediately and replace them with United Nations peacekeepers.

Photos of his son in his Marine uniform were taped to the windows of the home and several nearby cars. Suarez del Solar wore his son's dog tags, along with a dove pin on one collar and a pin with the U.S. and Mexican flags on the other.

Jesus Suarez del Solar was not a U.S. citizen when he was killed. He was born in Mexico, then immigrated to the United States and lived in Escondido, near San Diego. He died March 27 when he stepped on a cluster bomb. He was awarded citizenship posthumously.

Suarez del Solar was taking gifts for Iraqi children and a message of peace. He said he wants desperately to talk to Iraqis and tell them that Americans are not the enemy. "My son did not die in vain. He died for peace," said Suarez del Solar. "We planted him as a seed for future generations."

Global Exchange officials said meetings had been set up with some coalition officials and Iraqi citizens, and they also hoped to speak to U.S. soldiers on patrol.

Based in San Francisco, Global Exchange was founded in 1988 and has been a consistent critic of President Bush and the invasion of Iraq. The group is supplying logistical support for the trip, with many parents paying or having raised about $1,500 each in travel costs.

Medea Benjamin, the founding director of Global Exchange, said the point of the trip is for family members to meet Iraqis and American officials. She acknowledged that her group's viewpoint is no secret, but said that Global Exchange doesn't plan to use the parents as a propaganda tool.

"The group may or may not come back with a unified opinion. The fact of the matter is, we have to figure out how to disengage ourselves from Iraq," Benjamin said. "Whether we belonged there is not relevant right now."

Mike Lopercio, 51, a restaurant owner in Tempe, Ariz., also left Saturday for the long flight to Jordan, followed by a long drive across the Iraqi desert to Baghdad. His son, Anthony, is a private in the Army, serving somewhere near Fallujah.

"He just found out today that I'm coming," Lopercio said in an interview Friday. "He was really shocked. He said, 'You are going to be blown away by how unusual, strange and foreign this culture is.' "

His son joined the military one week before Sept. 11. Lopercio remembers watching the terrorist attacks unfold on television that morning and thinking that his son would soon be fighting in a war -- probably in Afghanistan.

Instead, his son is now in his second tour of duty in Iraq. It was a war that troubled his father, who is also worried about the effectiveness of the U.S. occupation and the lack of a public conversation about it.

"One of the things that confuses me is that, when I grew up, the Vietnam War was in full swing and everyone was eyeing it with a lot of skepticism," Lopercio said. "With this war, if anything, there is disinterest. We're focused on Jacko, Kobe Bryant. If this trip helps refocus our attention where it ought to be, even just a little bit, the trip will be a success. Because what we're doing in Iraq could have dire consequences for generations."

He plans to try to visit his son -- as long as the visit doesn't endanger the Army man in any way. He will tour the country and, Lopercio said, form his own views on whether his son and other U.S. soldiers belong there.

In Los Angeles, in a quiet moment before leaving, Suarez del Sol spoke of the other reason he wanted to make the journey. Sandwiched in one of his five suitcases was a glass jar, which he plans to fill with dirt near where his son died.

"I'm going to take the dirt to a park in Escondido where Jesus used to go when we lived there," said Suarez del Solar.

"I'm going to plant a white rose in it," he explained. "I believe it's important to have a piece of where he died, since he died so far away."

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