A mother's view on war

21st July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Two Dutch women whose sons served in the 1991 Gulf War talk to Tiffany Aron about their feelings as war comes to Iraq again.

President George W. Bush proclaimed that in the United States’ pursuit of terrorists, the rest of the world is either "with us or against us". His administration has applied the same reasoning to war with Iraq: people are either for it or against it, with little room for critique.

Certainly parents of military personnel feel differently and the notion that war is black and white is "ridiculous" to Beitske Boonstra, 58, one of two Dutch women whose sons elected to join the US Army and served during the 1991 Gulf War.

"When your child is there, you're much more emotionally involved," she said. "It’s very, very complex."

Having a son in the US Army was compounded by the fact that Boonstra is a pacifist who describes her opposition to war as a lifetime conviction and the whole weapons industry as "a waste of money and human lives."

Boonstra, who is from Raard, in Friesland, lived in the United States for two and a half years with her husband and two sons. She first lived in Texas and then in Houma, Louisiana, where her children attended high school. She eventually divorced and returned to Holland alone while her children continued living in the US.

In 1989, after finishing high school and working for a year, her oldest son Fred Westra, 19, told her that he and some of his classmates were going to join the army.

Boonstra and her ex-husband were upset and tried to discourage him. Though there was no talk of war back in 1989, Boonstra tried to warn Westra about the possibility. "It didn’t phase him," she said. "He was so young."

Westra enlisted and was soon stationed at an army base in Stuttgart, Germany and for the first year he was able to visit Boonstra and the rest of the family easily.

Talk of a Gulf region conflict began in August 1990, though nothing was definite. Westra had been working as a tank mechanic and mentioned to his mother that should the situation escalate, he would be one of the first people to leave.

Boonstra was just starting a new life for herself in Holland, having left her friends, job and home behind in the United States.

She pleaded with her son to desert and in November of 1990, went to Stuttgart to see him. She stayed in the barracks undetected for a week, as she talked with her son and other members of his unit.

Many soldiers told her they were against the war and that they did not want to go. They felt the reasons for war were weak and that it was all about oil and money. They were responsible for supplying fuel to tanks on the front line, which made them more vulnerable to an attack.

After a week of talking, Westra told his mother that he was going to stick it out and that he didn't want to leave his buddies behind. His decision demonstrated a lot of character for Boonstra, who finally had to return to Holland without him.

Westra took his mother to the train station in Stuttgart. "Oh, it was horrible," she said. “I’ll never forget how we said good-bye, as if we would never see each other again.”

Second Son

Diet Freriks, 71, remembers a similar feeling of dread when her son Marty van Driel, now 42, called in 1990 to tell her that he was being sent to Kuwait.

It was no consolation when he assured her that he wouldn’t actually be fighting, as he hadn’t been trained in combat. He joked that he didn’t even know how to hold a rifle, but Freriks still worried.

“I said ‘Marty, please desert. Marty, come to Holland. Marty, go to Canada,’ ” she said.

Right before he enlisted in 1988, van Driel, who was born in the US, and his wife were living in Colorado with their 2-year-old son. Neither had a steady job and a tour in the military seemed like the best way to obtain medical insurance for their child.

While stationed in the Gulf, van Driel worked first as a supplier, something he describes as a “pencil pushing” function, and later was assigned to a toilet cleaning detail far from any front-line action.

Van Driel wanted to fulfil his responsibility to the army and never considered deserting, though his mother and brother Barry, who was busy leading anti-war demonstrations in California, begged him to leave.

“It was difficult to disappoint them, not to desert,” he said.

Freriks supported her son but doesn’t think he would have joined the army if there had been talk of a war in 1988 because it would have upset her too much.

Only recently did she see his army training book, a record of his time in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Freriks said her son never showed it to her at the time, knowing that she doesn’t like anything having to do with war.


"I brought them up with my pacifism," she said, speaking about her two children.

Freriks' opposition to war is something she describes as being part of her. She doesn’t attribute it to any specific incident, though it may have started during World War II. She was aged 9 the oldest child in her family when Holland was occupied. She remembers it as being a scary time.

Her pacifism could have also been influenced by her experience living in Glens Falls, New York in 1955. She emigrated with her Dutch husband and instantly noticed the apathy of people in the community towards ethnic minorities and those who were poor or sick. Freriks could not believe the disparity in how people were treated.

From handing out extra cosmetic samples from her job as an Avon salesperson, to sponsoring a child from the Bronx to spend the summer in Glens Falls with her children, Freriks did what she could to help others. Over 40 years later, she still believes that the best way to deal with people is to lend a hand, even if it is towards an enemy.

A quick stroll through her home reflects her convictions, as it is decorated with peace stickers and buttons, with at least 10 in the guest bathroom alone.

Freriks attended Vietnam War protests when she was living in the United States and protested the Gulf War when she returned to Holland.

She spoke out about it to the Dutch media, which is how she and Boonstra found out about each other. Boonstra says speaking out in Holland helped her cope with the situation.

Neither woman had any direct contact with their sons when they were stationed in Kuwait. Telephones available to the troops were wired directly for numbers in the United States.

Both men survived the war and their relationships with their mothers remained intact, yet the situation altered them.

Gas attack

Boonstra's son had a scare in Kuwait, during a real chemical alarm. Soldiers scrambled to put on suits and gas masks and had to tape up their ankles and wrists, to block out any additional particles from passing.

Westra, thinking that he had not taped his suit properly, panicked, ripped it off and ran outside, reasoning that it would be better to die quickly.

It turned out to be a false alarm, though Westra and others in his unit surreptitiously had not taken the oral medications that were administered before they were transported to the Gulf. They were concerned about the army’s lack of knowledge regarding the drugs’ indications.

The soldiers were unable to refuse the numerous injections that were given, of which the capabilities are still not fully understood.

Neither Westra nor van Driel have had any symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome, but war related health issues are still a concern.

When Freriks' son first returned to Holland afterwards, he was very despondent and seemed unable to find any peace. Freriks says that her son worries about every ache and pain, frightened that it could be related to his time in the Gulf

Though it may be wishful thinking, Freriks remains hopeful that a second Gulf War won’t happen. To Boonstra, however, war is always a failure and she has no illusions about the current situation in the world.

"It makes me mad. I have no words for it. It’s wrong," she said.

March 2003

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