Mélida Arredondo, of Roslindale, Mass., center, holds boots worn by her son, Marine Lance Corporal Alexander Arredondo, who was killed in Iraq in 2004, as she joins demonstrators in Boston Dec. 2 in opposition to President Obama’s plan to commit an additional 30,000 troops to the war in Afghanistan. Josh Reynolds / AP
Nearly everything is a sad reminder for Mélida Arredondo: the news on TV, stories in the paper, speeches of Barack Obama and others who talk about a war that seems to have lasted so long and affected so many lives, those lost as well as those left behind.
“Did your son like the Marine Corps?” I ask her.
“Yes,” she replies. “He loved it.”
“And why did he join?”
“Too poor to go to college,” Mélida Arredondo says.
Alexander Arredondo enlisted at 17 and was killed at 20 in Najaf during his second deployment in Iraq. He died on his father’s birthday, Aug. 25, 2004, when Carlos Arredondo turned 44.
“My husband almost killed himself in grief,” his wife says. “The day [the Marines] came to tell us Alex was dead, he poured gasoline all over himself and all over the inside of [their] car and lit it on fire. He survived … physically.”
Last week, she and her husband went to the Kennedy Library in Boston to hear Ted Kennedy’s widow talk about her husband’s book, True Compass. She and Carlos, born in Costa Rica, stood patiently while Vicki Kennedy signed books and shook hands. They reminded her that their son Alex and her husband the Senator died on the same day, Carlos’ birthday, five years apart, and they thanked her for the help Senator Kennedy provided after the young Marine’s death when his father sought citizenship.
“I remember,” Vicki Kennedy told them.
The library event took place hours after Obama announced he would throw 30,000 additional troops into an ungovernable country called Afghanistan. Carlos and Mélida Arredondo listened and thought of their lost son and a nephew now at Fort Hood, one tour of Afghanistan behind him, a second on the horizon because the Army is fractured by years of battle.
“People have no idea what it does to families,” she says. “When he got killed, I didn’t sleep for days. I still don’t sleep. I lost 30 pounds. My husband withdrew from everyone.
“My son Brian, he is 22, and he can’t seem to do anything without thinking about Alex. We are very worried about him.”
The families of the fallen are nearly alone in a nation served by an all-volunteer military now nearing a decade on the front line against an enemy that wears no uniform and cannot be brought to any negotiating table. The pain of loss is forever. Their shared grief scatters across the land like ashes blown by the wind, invisible to the majority preoccupied with joblessness and a gnawing anxiety that America might be broken.
“I was disappointed in Obama,” Mélida Arredondo says. “I thought, ‘I’ve heard this before, from Bush.’ He wasn’t as passionate as he usually is. He sounded like a professor. I want to hear him talk about the cost of these wars. I want a discourse about a war tax. I want people to have some skin in the game.”
“Did you believe him?” I ask.
“Wrong question,” she suggests. “Did he believe his own speech? I don’t think so.”
She speaks from another battleground too, the health care wars that threaten to swallow Washington. For nine years, Mélida Arredondo has worked at a neighborhood health center in the Dorchester section of Boston, the Upham’s Corner Health Center. She has a master’s in public health and does the work of three people because of staff layoffs and funding cutbacks.
“We take care of the poor,” she points out. “We had 250,000 patient visits last year in this one clinic. We’ll have even more this year. We have staff people who speak Vietnamese, Spanish, Haitian Creole, Portuguese and English. Many of the people we see are uninsured. The costs are enormous. That’s why I’m a fiscal conservative. Working here, I have to be.”
She is behind a desk on the second floor of a three-story brick building located on a busy boulevard filled with those who measure the future by a wristwatch. She is surrounded by the heartache of those who show up grappling with the oldest of maladies: no money. The work helps push her own sadness, etched permanently in her eyes, off the screen for a few hours each day.
Two days ago, returning home in darkness, she discovered a letter from the President. She and her husband had written twice to the White House, upset about the prospect of increased casualties.
“Thank you for writing me,” Barack Obama wrote. “Every day, we are humbled by the legacy of our men and women in uniform who sacrificed their lives for our country.”
Mélida Arredondo paused after that first paragraph. She thought of Alex and her husband Carlos and her nephew at Fort Hood. She thought about the long parade of the poor who arrive each day at her work seeking care, and she thought about the fact that she was a member of a Gold Star family.
“Wars cost a lot,” she says.