Friday, May 25, 2007

A hero is buried-- and what his community still needs

Today was a long, hot day.

I went as an invited guest of the Birdsprings chapter (Navajo communities are called chapters) to the funeral of U.S. Army Sergeant Christopher N. Gonzalez, a native of Birdsprings who was killed on May 14 when his unit was attacked near Salman Pak, Iraq.

Sergeant Gonzalez was part of the first battalion of the 15th Infantry regiment of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team.of the 3rd infantry division based at Fort Stewart, Georgia (where he and his wife had bought a home). He was in his second tour of duty in Iraq. He leaves a wife and a young son.

His family asked that the media not report specifically on the funeral (which was planned and arranged by Sgt. Gonzalez himself, pre-planned in the event it occurred) so although as a blogger I am not a member of the media, I will honor that request and not discuss the details of the funeral, except to say that it was clear that Sgt. Gonzalez was very proud to be a member of the United States Army.

I will also say that I've been honored to be going out to Birdsprings for almost two years. Originally it was to do political work, but as I've been going out there I've discovered a most amazing and wonderful group of people. They are willing to open their doors and their hearts and share what little they have (and believe me, it is little) with even a stranger (though by now I'm not such a stranger anymore.) I’ve always felt very welcome there.

Poverty in Birdsprings is extreme. I've tried to describe it to some people who haven't been there and been accused of exaggerating (I've been told that 'nobody in America lives like that,' by people who have themselves never had to face it.) The unemployment rate there is in the neighborhood of 50% (though most who are unemployed are simply classified as 'not in labor force'). But even in 2000 when jobs were plentiful elsewhere the reported unemployment rate of those who were actively in the labor force was still over 16%-- about the same level as it was nationally during the Depression-- and it's risen since then. And everyone is very poor-- even the people who are fortunate enough to have a job end up sharing their paycheck because they certainly have family members who don't have a job; the per capita income in 2000 was less than $8,000 per person, and almost half the homes lack some or all plumbing (no surprise because of how many don't have running water). Two thirds have no phone.

There are dozens of homes in Birdsprings (and over 18,000 on the Navajo Nation as a whole) which have never been hooked up to the electric grid. If they were then it might even be possible to drill some wells and provide running water (right now they have to haul water for miles, which is itself very expensive using old, inefficient trucks that get poor mileage-- but that's all most people have, because not very many people on the reservation can afford a new vehicle, or even a relatively new used one-- but then when the weather is bad some of the roads are impassable anyway-- except maybe by horse.) And yes, some people go to the outhouse in the dark, year round with a flashlight or an oil lamp-- I've met quite a few of them by now. So many of the young people leave the reservation to go to work, and many of them go into the military (like Sergeant Gonzalez); if they did not then the unemployment rate would be even more horrific than it already is.

To hook the dozens of homes in Birdsprings that need it to the electric grid would cost $700,000. Then wells could be drilled and pumps operated to provide them with water.

And here is where it went instead: The cost of the Iraq war is now at about $1,150 per person (plus whatever is being allocated in the 'new' Congressional funding sham). There are (census data) 829 people in Birdsprings. That means that Birdsprings chapter's share of the 'investment' (all borrowed, to be paid back later) in Iraq is just under a million dollars (with the new funding bill, it will go over that). Ironically, we’ve spent millions to build electric, water and other infrastructure—in Iraq (in addition of course to the hundreds of billions that have gone to destroy what was built before.)

So if they just had their proportion of the money we've been spending in Iraq, Birdsprings chapter could pay for these basic needs for their own people. But instead they've received, like most communities, no return for their 'investment' in Iraq.

Until now. They've finally gotten a return for their share of the debts run up to finance the war in Iraq. And they buried him today.

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