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
"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?"
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
“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
“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 in
vited 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
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.”