When she spoke on the phone with her daughter, Sara Rich tried to keep her wits about her. She wanted her daughter, Suzanne Swift, a soldier deployed in Iraq, to take strength from her mother, who is a deacon at Unity of the Valley Church in Eugene, Ore.

It wasn’t insurgents in the war zone who worried Rich the most. Swift, just 18 when she signed up for the U.S. Army’s delayed entry program out of high school, spent most of her time in Iraq as a victim of “command rape,” the term Rich uses to describe her daughter’s sexual harassment and forced sexual relationship with a superior who had “life and death” authority over Swift when she was deployed in the war. Swift also alleges two additional cases of sexual harassment by superiors.

After hanging up the phone, Rich said she would break down. “I prayed all the time,” she says.

Swift went AWOL in January rather than return for another Iraqi tour of duty. Her mother is now traveling the country “to spread the story about military sexual violence and military sexual trauma.” Rich was in Raleigh on Sept. 23 to speak about her daughter’s plight. Triangle CodePink sponsored Rich’s visit.

On Sept. 27, the Army charged Swift, 22, with missing a troop movement and being absent without leave, charges that carry the risk of a court-martial trial and imprisonment.

Swift has been at Fort Lewis, Wash., since Eugene police took her into custody at her mother’s home for being AWOL.

According to Rich, her daughter faced sexual harassment from Day 1 of her Iraqi deployment.

“The day she set foot on foreign soil her platoon sergeant looked at her and said, ‘Swift, why are you always looking at me like you want to have sex with me?’ I’ll put it nicely. I won’t use cuss words,” Rich says.

When Swift reported the harassment, she was told by an officer her complaints would be reported to “command,” but no one ever got back to her, Rich says.

The sergeant went from verbally harassing Swift and trying to coerce her into becoming “his deployment girlfriend” (he was married) into physical attacks, Rich says. One day when he was with her, the sergeant grabbed Swift “by the neck and shoved his tongue down her mouth,” Rich says.

The sergeant made sure Swift had solo accommodations so he could have sex with her whenever he pleased, the mother said. While Swift confided in her mother what was happening to her, she was too afraid to report her sergeant again.

Swift was scared out of her wits, Rich says. “This man has life or death decision-making power over her. If he tells her to walk though a minefield, she walks. He showed up whenever he wanted to have sex with her. He was violent. He was drunk. It was horrible.”

In an interview broadcast Sept. 18 on the radio program Democracy Now, Swift said: “I had a squad leader who literally singled me out to be the person that he was going to have sex with during the deployment, and you know, I was 19. I fell for it, and for months I was like his little sex slave, I guess. It was disgusting and it was horrible, and I didn’t know what to do.”

Army officials said they took Swift’s allegations seriously, and Fort Lewis commander, Lt. Gen. James Dubik, requested a full investigation. After more than 20 interviews, however, Swift’s claim of coerced sex could not be substantiated, Army spokeswoman Sgt. Maj. Yolanda Choates, told The Seattle Times.

“He said he didn’t; it was his word against hers,” Choates said.

When she was arrested, Swift was taken to jail and stripped-searched, Rich says. “This is how we treat our vets. This is how we treat a victim of rape. A three-day investigation concludes that it never happened.”

Israeli environmentalist

Alon Tal says it is incumbent on this generation to make sure a clean and healthy natural environment awaits future generations. Tal, a professor of ecology at Ben Gurion University, was in Raleigh on Sept. 13 to address the environmental and political challenges facing Israel today.

Tal, who spent his formative years in Raleigh and attended UNC-Chapel Hill, is one of Israel’s leading environmentalists. He spoke at Beth Meyer Synagogue.

“The Holy Land is a special, special place,” he says. “People of all faiths see it as a special place that needs to be protected.”

Tal said wars and growth have led to many environmental problems for Israel and its neighbors. The recent war with Lebanon caused “a terrible oil spill” in Lebanon, Tal says, and in Israel a million trees were damaged as a result of brush fires caused by Hezbollah’s shelling.

While Israel has “done some phenomenal things” environmentally, Tal says there’s also the “great tragedy of Israel,” that so much money “goes toward survival, and not enough resources to really look at the environmental problems, which are quite, quite stoppable. That’s the good news.”

On the bright side, Israel has planted more trees in relation to its size than any country in the world, Tal says. “Israel is the only country that I know of on the planet where deserts are not expanding, but they’re shrinking. Desertification is a big problem in a lot of African countries, (but) Israel makes the desert bloom, so to speak.”

Israel rehabilitates degraded areas, and the small nation leads the world in waste water reuse.

“The negative side involves very rapid development,” Tal says. Israel’s population has grown from 1 million people to 7 million people in about 50 years, he says. Such rapid growth taxes the environment.

Tal says he’d like to see more emphasis placed on wind, solar and biomass energy rather than greater emphasis on a resurgence of nuclear power plants, which create radioactive waste problems that last for generations.

Tal started Adam Teva v’Din, an environmental public advocacy group, and the Arava Institute, a program that promotes peace by bringing Israeli, American, Palestinian and Jordanian students together to study and work on environmental projects. Tal also ran for Knesset as a member of Israel’s Green Party. He was the 2005 recipient of the Charles Bronfman Prize for humanitarianism and Jewish International leadership.

Jews and Christians have a “deeply ingrained” religious tradition that says they “have an obligation to leave the earth in better condition for future generations,” Tal said.

Failure to do so could have a dire impact on creation and on our children, he says. “That’s a heck of a burden to leave them with,” Tal says.

Tal’s books include Pollution in a Promised Land and Speaking of Earth: Environmental Speeches that Moved the World.

Death row friend

In prison, mail call can be the highlight of an inmate’s day–if a letter arrives. Central Prison death row inmate Christopher Roseboro is happy most days. That’s because Elaine Morgan, who lives in Wales, spends about $1.60 postage each day (seven days a week) to send Roseboro a letter that usually takes a week to get across the Atlantic to Roseboro’s solitary confinement cell in Central Prison. Roseboro was sentenced to death for the March 13, 1992, murder of Martha Edwards, 72, of Gastonia.

Morgan, who calls herself “just a normal housewife with an interest in human rights,” started writing to Roseboro after getting his name as a pen pal via Human Write, an British organization that enables people to write to U.S. death row inmates.

Since their letter-writing began last year, Morgan said they have shared lots of conversations about their lives, politics and religion. They even have a Bible study going on through letters.

“There’s nothing he doesn’t know about the Bible,” Morgan says of Roseboro.

A 10-minute collect call from Central Prison to Wales last Christmas (death row inmates are allowed just one telephone call per year) cost Morgan more than $100. Last month, Morgan spent a lot more money to come to Raleigh to visit Roseboro. At the urging of her husband, Morgan flew to Raleigh where she was able to talk with Roseboro through a glass partition for about five hours over two days.

“I just wanted to meet him,” says Morgan, who stayed at Nazareth House, a Christian community in Raleigh that provides a free place to stay for people visiting death row inmates. Morgan was picked up at the airport by Elka Harabin of Raleigh, who also writes to Roseboro.

Morgan said Roseboro confided in her that inmates can’t show a weak side in prison, but at night their emotions pour out in the form of tears.

“It’s very quiet, but you know the men are crying,” Morgan says Roseboro told her. “Everybody’s crying. That’s what they do at night.”

Morgan says her trip to Raleigh was life-changing. She plans to come back again to visit Roseboro in the spring. She says she received “kindness and compassion and love” from those she met in Raleigh. “I’ve made all these new friends,” she says.

Morgan said she will stand by Roseboro for the long haul.

“I told him, ‘I’m dedicated to you. I’ll never let you down. I’m with you till the end, whatever end that is.’”

Peace at the N.C. State Fair

For more than 50 years, a group of religious activists and their supporters have maintained a booth devoted to nonviolence and world peace at the N.C. State Fair, which opens Friday and runs through Oct. 22.

More than 120 volunteers, most of them from Triangle-area congregations, will staff the booth for almost 13 hours each day of the fair. This year’s theme for the Peace Booth is “Imagine a World Secure Under An Umbrella of Peace,” a theme designed by artist Roger Ehrlich, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh. In addition to free literature about peace, justice and ecology, fairgoers can sign petitions and take home copies of the peace statements of different faiths and Christian denominations.

The fair opens each day at 9 a.m. The Peace Booth is located in the Education Building, which runs along Hillsborough Street.

Have news from the religious left? E-mail Patrick O’Neill at pmtoneill@aol.com.