By Sue Gray
Sprouting wings can be a painful experience, for the wing-bearer as well as those close to her. I was 44 years old on September 11, 2001 when I watched the Twin Towers come crashing down and thousands of people lose their lives. Until that day I had been simply a wife, mother, employee, and average citizen. But suddenly I was compelled to DO something: something big, important, scary, and altogether unexpected.
I began doing research into the history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East. I needed an explanation for what had happened and I just didn’t buy the official line that we were attacked because “they hate us for our freedom.” What I found wasn’t pretty. Our country has been responsible for some horrific human rights and political abuses in the Middle East. It doesn’t justify what happened on 9/11, but it does explain the true motivation of the terrorists.
As our military began operations in Afghanistan and there was talk of attacking Iraq, I wrote my first ever Letter to the Editor of our local newspaper. I wanted people to know that another act of U.S. aggression on the people of an Arab land would only exacerbate the problem and lead to more terrorist acts against us. I was determined not to let another 9/11-type event happen in my lifetime.
Because of that letter, I received an invitation to join the newly formed Roaring Fork Peace Coalition. We had meetings, wrote letters, marched in the streets, joined with other groups in Colorado to develop strategies for preventing the U.S. from attacking a country that had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11, and was already beleaguered by the Gulf War in 1991, and subsequent economic sanctions.
At a peace rally in Denver, I carried a sign that read, “I have no enemies in Iraq.” That photo appeared on the front page of the Aspen Times along with a story about my entry into activism, and my plan to go to Iraq with an organization called Christian Peacemaker Teams.
This plan developed out of a desire to clear up the misconceptions about Iraq that our government and media were spreading to foment support for the war. Through my online research, I had discovered the CPT organization that has been sending teams of activists to Iraq since 1994 to document and expose the effects of the Gulf War and sanctions. Their goal had been to get the sanctions lifted and to allow the people of Iraq to flourish again as they once had, before their dictatorial leader decided to invade Kuwait and incur the wrath of the U.S. and international community. CPT was then trying to prevent another horrific war, and they sent out a call for team members willing to step up to the task in a very scary and uncertain time.
The photo and story about me in the Aspen Times led to accusations of treason by letter writers in our community. People who believed Iraq was responsible for 9/11 or was planning to attack the U.S. with “weapons of mass destruction” were appalled that I would try to prevent the U.S. from destroying our so-called enemy. My morals, motives, patriotism and sanity were continually questioned in the editorial section of our local newspapers.
Being new to activism of any kind, I was surprised and shocked at the reaction I was getting. It hurt to be misunderstood and publicly ridiculed. But it was too late. My wings had sprouted and I was ready to spread them and fly!
Now, all this time, my husband stood by and watched as I became a person he barely recognized. I was gone a lot, I was a public figure being interviewed and making speeches, I wrote furiously and received furious responses.
I knew he wasn’t happy with the person I was becoming, but I was driven to succeed in my goal to stop the suffering of war and terrorism. So I didn’t tell him about my plan to go to Iraq. CPT required an application procedure and fundraising before accepting team members for the mission. I figured if I didn’t get accepted, I wouldn’t have to confront him with what I knew would be intolerable news.
My secrecy was blown when a friend of my husband’s read the Aspen Times article and casually mentioned to him, “So you’re wife’s going to Iraq.” All hell broke loose that day. But after I told him about the strict application process and fundraising requirement, he calmed down, assured that it wouldn’t happen. Except, it did happen. I was accepted by CPT, I raised close to $2000 for the trip expenses, and I was scheduled to depart on December 26, 2002.
When my husband came home early from work one day and found me listening to an Arabic language tape, repeating the traditional greeting “assalamu alaikum,” another fight ensued. He wasn’t just angry, he was scared. So were my other family members and friends, even my fellow Peace Coalition members begged me not to go.
Our government and media had done an excellent job of convincing Americans that Iraq was full of rabid Muslims eager to kill Americans. I listened to many arguments from people who cared about me, trying to convince me not to go. But now my wings were fully formed and nothing would stop me from taking flight.
I had been emboldened by stories of 8 years of monthly CPT delegations to Iraq, and all the research I’d done that showed Iraqi society was not as advertised by our government. Still, as I said goodbye to my husband at the Denver airport, a wave of fear swept over me. “What am I doing?” I thought, “I’ve never even been out of the country and now I’m going to the Middle East, to Iraq!”
Because of the sanctions, it was illegal for U.S. citizens to travel to Iraq, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. I must be as crazy as people say. My husband told me he felt a little bit of satisfaction at my confession of fear and disbelief. Finally I was coming to my senses, even if it was too late to do anything about it.
So, along with a CPT team of 11 other activists, I spent 10 days in Iraq. We were greeted with warmth and the utmost gratitude for our desire to prevent a U.S. attack by some of the friendliest and most polite people I’ve ever met. I took copious notes and photos everywhere we went of the people, the mosques, the Christian church (yes, that’s right), the Gulf War battle aftermath, and effects of the sanctions, so that I could inform people in my community when I got back, and hopefully turn the tide of public opinion against war.
Alas it was not to be. The war machine rolled forward on the wheels of propaganda and lies. I was branded a lunatic and traitor for speaking out, and for “fraternizing with the enemy” I earned the nickname “Baghdad Sue,” a reference to Jane Fonda’s “Hanoi Jane” label after her visit to Viet Nam. Despite multiple personal attacks after every Letter to the Editor I wrote, I continued to try to inform our community. It was a hard time for my family and friends and in the end, I did nothing to prevent our country from perpetrating more suffering and violence on the Iraqi people, or to prevent another terrorist attack on Americans by Islamic extremists.
However, the experience of engaging in activism, writing and public speaking changed me forever. I was now strong enough to fly as high as I wanted to. Though my husband never warmed up to my role as a public figure, he did tell me that he was proud of me and would support me in whatever I felt I needed to do. He has kept that promise for the last 15 years.
Sue Gray has changed careers four times in the last ten years. She’s served on the Carbondale Environmental Board, the Dandelion Day Planning Committee, and the Sopris Sun newspaper board of directors. She is currently on the Mount Sopris Historical Society board and is the curator of the Thompson House Museum Heritage Garden. Sue lives in Carbondale with her husband of forty years.