Marla Ann Ruzicka
It’s a long way culturally from Lakeport to San Francisco. It’s farther still to Washington, to Kabul and Baghdad. That’s the journey Marla Ruzicka made. Today she came home. This morning and afternoon, her family, friends, colleagues, and admirers gathered at Saint Mary Immaculate Church on North Main Street in Lakeport to celebrate and say goodbye to one of the town’s daughters, a woman who in the last week, in death, became its most famous citizen. The speakers at the funeral service included one of her older sisters, a childhood friend, and some of the activists, journalists, and politicians Marla met in her wide travels during her all too brief time after leaving Lakeport. The turnout was greater than the church could hold and a couple hundred mourners gathered around speakers and television screens outside the church, remaining through brief rain showers to hear from Medea Benjamin, Representative Mike Thompson, and California’s Democratic Senator, Barbara Boxer.
Among the many things about the war in Iraq that has infuriated me was that once all the other pretexts for the war, the WMD, the threat to the US and Iraq’s neighbors, had been demonstrated to be false, all that was left was that the war was for the good of the Iraqi people. The jury is still out on that, in the long run that may prove to be so, but is patently true that a significant group of Iraqis, those killed or maimed during the war, most specifically those killed or maimed by American arms, are decidedly worse off than they would have been had the war not been waged. It has been disgraceful that our government, and most Americans, exhibited no concern for those Iraqis, those who were bearing the brunt of the human cost of the war. We have quite infamously even refused to count them. While I got mad and did nothing, though, Marla Ruzicka was moved to do something about it. Traveling to Afghanistan and Iraq, speaking only English and without a formal support network, she launched a drive to count the innocent victims of our wars and to have them compensated by our government. She learned to work with Congress and the Pentagon to get money and support. She founded her own relief agency, The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict. Through her efforts, tens of millions of dollars are now being given victims of the war in compensation and unofficial efforts are being made by the military to account for civilian casualties. As Mike Thompson said, at the beginning of this war, civilian casualties, if they were considered at all, were considered “collateral damage.” A change is coming. Slowly, due in large part to Marla’s efforts and sadly, to her death, awareness of the civilian casualties is increasing.
In addition to the fact that she walked this world spreading good cheer and unconditional love while leaving good deeds in her wake, the point that every body who spoke of her touched on, whether explicitly or implicitly, was brought home most succinctly and forcefully by Bobby Muller, Chairman of Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, when he said that Marla proved that one person’s life can make a profound difference in the world. Because of Marla’s example, none of us can complacently avoid engaging the injustices we see. With any effort we put forth, we can make a difference. If we don’t, it’s because we haven’t tried. Quill Lawrence, a BBC radio journalist, said that after knowing Marla, he can no longer pass by those who are needy or suffer without lending a hand, he can no longer shrug his shoulders and say “what can one person do?” We’ve been shown what one person can do. Probably none of us can match her, but we can try.
I’m 45 years old and it’s been a long time since I’ve looked at anybody in this world as a hero or inspiration. Marla’s my hero now. I wish I’d known of her sooner.
Marla Ann Ruzicka’s body has been returned to Lakeport. Her spirit of love and hope that inspired everybody she contacted remains loose in the world. CIVIC and the crusade she started survive her. We can honor her and our nation by contributing to the cause she gave her life for.
Update: Link to CIVIC fixed.