“Just down the road here is a school, the School of the Americas. It’s a combat school. Most of the courses revolve around what they call counter insurgency warfare. Who are the insurgents? We have to ask that question. They are the poor. They are the people in Latin America who call for reform. They are the landless peasants who are hungry. They are health care workers, human rights advocates, labor organizers, they become the insurgents, they’re seen as El Enemigo, the Enemy. And they are those who become the targets of those who learn their lessons at the School of the Americas.”
In the quote above, Father Roy Bourgeois, Catholic priest and founder of the School of America Watch (SOAW), describes the military training ground now called the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) that is based at Fort Benning outside of Columbus, Georgia. His work reveals the truth about the programs taught there and aims to close what is often referred to as the “School of Assassins”. Since 1946, WHINSEC has reportedly trained more than 70,000 military and police officers from Latin America and the United States in torture, executions, and other forms of coercion.
Roy Bourgeois was a Naval Officer decorated with a Purple Heart and later became a Maryknoll missionary priest who was awarded the Pax Christi Award as a “Teacher of Peace” in 1997.
Bourgeois was born in 1938 in Louisiana´s Cajun country. Growing up in a conservative working class family, he attended public school and played high school sports. He went to a state university, played football, and graduated with a degree in geology, hoping to make his fortune in the oil fields.
Duty to God and country called Bourgeois to the Navy, where he served as an officer for two years before he volunteered to go to Vietnam in 1965.
What he experienced in Vietnam changed the course of his life. As bombs exploded, fires raged, and napalm burned villages, Bourgeois discovered Vietnam´s people and culture. He spent weekends volunteering at a Catholic orphanage, where he witnessed the magnitude of the suffering the war generated. He soon decided that he was not cut out for the military.
Roy returned home to a hero’s welcome and received the Purple Heart for his participation in a battle in Saigon, but he already knew that he wanted shift his attention to peacemaking. In 1968, he began studies to become a Maryknoll missionary priest.
While Bourgeois worked toward his ordination as a Catholic priest, he protested the Vietnam war with other veterans and spent the first of what would be a total of four years in jail. When he was ordained in 1972, Bourgeois was sent to Bolivia where he worked in poor communities for five years before he was deported from the country for speaking out against human rights violations and organizing to overthrow Bolivia´s dictator, General Hugo Banzer.
In 1980, Father Bourgeois moved to a Catholic Worker house in Chicago where he continued his work with the poor and his commitment to non-violence. However, he became involved again in Latin American events when, that same year, three Catholic nuns and a lay missionary, two of whom were friends of Bourgeois´, were raped and killed in El Salvador and Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated. Nine years later in El Salvador, six Jesuit priests were massacred along with their housekeeper and the housekeeper´s daughter.
When he discovered links between these events and the School of the Americas, Bourgeois became an outspoken critic of US Latin American policy. He rented an apartment near the entrance to the school, dubbed it “Casa Romero” and founded the SOAW. In November of 1990, the first anniversary of the Jesuit massacre, SOAW staged a public protest; Father Bourgeois was arrested and jailed. Each year since then the protest grows and will continue until the school is closed.
Father Bourgeois travels the country teaching non-violence and peace in schools, churches, and community groups.
When Bourgeois participated in a woman’s ordination ceremony in Lexington, Kentucky he was excommunicated from the Catholic Church for refusing to denounce the ordination of women. At the ordination, he stated, “No matter how hard we may try to justify discrimination, in the end it is always wrong and immoral.”
He believes that “the truth cannot be silenced. It simply cannot be silenced.”
Americans Who Tell the Truth (AWTT) offers a variety of ways to engage with its portraits and portrait subjects. Host an exhibit, use our free lesson plans and educational programs, or engage with a member of the AWTT team or portrait subjects.
AWTT has educational materials and lesson plans that ask students to grapple with truth, justice, and freedom.
AWTT encourages community engagement programs and exhibits accompanied by public events that stimulate dialogue around citizenship, education, and activism.