Years after son was beheaded in Iraq, dad still seeks peace
WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — On what would have been Nick Berg’s 40th birthday next week, his father will be where he’s been nearly every April 2 since his son was beheaded in Iraq: Lake Drummond.
It’s a spot Nick always would talk about wanting to visit before he was captured by Islamic militants in 2004 and killed on videotape by a group of five masked men. The al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is believed to be the one who commits the act with a knife pulled from under his clothes.
Far from Baghdad where Nick’s 26-year-old body was found nearly 14 years ago, Michael Berg will be continuing his search for peace in the wake of Nick’s death on Monday.
The circular, freshwater lake is about an hour drive from Michael’s Norfolk, Virginia, home, located at the center of the Great Dismal Swamp, a marshy, placid region of southeastern Virginia. Michael will be in his kayak, speaking out loud to his lost son, just like he does every year after, weather permitting.
“I think about him the whole time I’m there. There’s an echo effect, so if you’re on the lake talking, you can hear it coming back to you almost like a conversation effect,” says Michael, 73, who moved to Delaware shortly after his son’s death and channeled his grief into an unsuccessful 2006 run for U.S. Congress in Delaware against former Rep. Michael Castle.
Nick had gone to Iraq as a telecommunications contractor to repair radio towers following the United States’ invasion in 2003 — a military move Nick supported and Michael, an anti-war protester since Vietnam, did not.
During both of his campaigns following Nick’s death — the one for Congress and the one against the war — Michael was mostly on his own as the rest of the family grieved privately, avoiding media.
Not only would he attend anti-war meetings and protests, including weekly gatherings during rush hour on Delaware Avenue at I-95 in Wilmington, but he was also organizing a political campaign.
He’d meet with campaign staff and media at coffee shops, porches or just about any location other than his Wilmington home, where the Bergs had moved to from West Chester, Pennsylvania in 2005. (The Bergs moved to Virginia from Delaware in 2007, a year after Michael earned less than 2 percent of the vote in his bid for election.)
Fourteen years after Nick’s death, Michael is once again speaking with The News Journal and this time it’s by telephone from his car, which is parked at a hardware store in Norfolk, near where he lives with his wife. Their daughter and two grandchildren live nearby.
The loss of Nick is still raw, especially for Michael’s wife, and he still keeps her wishes for privacy in mind.
“If she comes home and hears me talking to you, it would start a whole thing. She would get upset — she doesn’t want to hear me talking about Nick or anything like that,” he says. “It’s a very emotional thing. It’s a button. If you push it, you can’t un-push it.”
At the time of Nick’s death , grief mixed with politics for Michael, who would sometimes show his more strident side.
One day after his son was found, Michael was riding his bicycle back from the YMCA when he suddenly decided he would finally talk to the media gathered outside of his home.
“It just exploded in my head,” he now remembers.
Soon, his words of anger were ringing in media across the world: “My son died for the sins of (former president) George Bush and (former Secretary of Defense) Donald Rumsfeld. This administration did this.” He later told a Delaware media member that President Bush was “a bigger terrorist than al-Zarqawi.”
When al-Zarqawi died in 2006 thanks to a pair of 500-pound American bombs dropped on a safe house near Baghdad, Michael was a guest on CNN’s “Larry King Live” and the talk show host audibly sighed when Berg, dressed in his trademark long-sleeve T-shirt and blue jeans, refused to say the death of the terrorist was a good thing. Michael’s announcement of forgiveness for the men who killed his son didn’t help, especially in a post-9/11 America.
And when running for Congress, Michael would happily crash political debates as the Green Party candidate, even though he had not been admitted to participate.
Delaware-based documentarian JJ Garvine remembers it all because his cameras were rolling for “Keeping the Peace,” a documentary he made with fellow filmmaker Tai Parquet about Michael’s political run.
As the campaign crumbled around him, Michael did whatever it took to get his message out, including being hauled out of candidate forums by security.
“When you show up to a political debate as a candidate, you can at least leave the room thinking half of them liked me,” says Garvine, whose latest documentary with Parquet, “Film Hawk,” was screened at the Sundance Film Festival last year. “In Michael’s case, both the Democrats and Republicans despised him, the Green Party was pretty mad at him and he was led away in handcuffs.”
As Michael looks back that that emotional time — Nick’s death, the media attention, his political run — he says he would have done some things differently.
He still believes in his message of peace and forgiveness — you can find him protesting against war and for environmental causes in Virginia any given day. But he also looks back and wishes he had been less combative and less ego-driven.
The hostility even leaked onto his red, beat-up 1993 Geo Metro convertible, which was plastered with divisive political bumper stickers.
He now wishes he had said his piece about the Bush Administration and just left it at that.
“I just talked and talked and talked. And that was therapeutic for me, but all that talk watered down my message,” Michael says. “It was a mistake for me personally because it upset my family so much and it was only an attempt on my part to keep myself in the spotlight. I feel really bad about that.”
At the time, he was driven by his message against the war, using his son’s death as his first exhibit. But he now realizes there was more to it: “I have to admit that it was a lot of ego.”
Even so, Michael was not just raging against politicians, corporate-owned media and anything else that didn’t fit into his worldview at the time. He also had a quiet, determined side that he was working hard to maintain.
On one December night on Delaware Avenue in 2005 with about 15 other protesters, Berg was holding a sign that showed the haunting image of his son dressed in an orange jumpsuit sitting in front of five men wearing black.
“Nick Berg, April 2, 1978 - May 7, 2004,” it read underneath.
As Berg stood in front of an American flag decorated with a peace symbol instead of stars, a driver at a red light shouted, “Get over it!,” before taking off. Berg did not react, keeping his steely gaze forward.
“I don’t respond to people set in their ways. I stay in a peaceful place within myself,” he told a News Journal reporter that night.
A dozen years later, Berg remembers that moment well and many others like them, including the death threats he received, letters from people threatening to cut off his head, along with other parts of his body.
“I made a tremendous effort not to react because I thought it would make the whole message hypocritical,” he says now. “If I’m screaming at someone, which I maybe had a right to do, that’s not a message of peace. I was being more peaceful than I actually am.”
Garvine shakes his head at the blowback Berg received.
“He stood up for what he believed in. It was pretty ironic that people were calling him un-patriotic at that time because he was standing up for what he believed was the best for the country,” he says. “Isn’t that the definition of being patriotic? Yet they viewed him as the enemy.”
These days, the retired grandfather’s ego takes a backseat to family, although he still darts out now and again for a new protest, most of which are with the Norfolk Catholic Worker group.
After a stranger called his bumper stickers “hateful” one day, Berg made a change when he realized the man was right.
In-your-face bumper stickers can’t be found on the 2004 Volvo station wagon he now drives. Stickers that support Bernie Sanders and read “War is not the answer” now stick where venomous anti-Bush messages once ruled.
At a time when the nation seems more divided than ever politically, sparking rage on both sides, Michael Berg has been settling into a softer posture — surely a shock to those he butted heads with in the past.
“I realized I was trying to hide that part of me, but it came out and that’s just not the way I want to be,” he says, stressing that forgiveness has helped keep him from internalizing his anger.
Even so, it can be a struggle.
Forgiveness for the men who killed his son came easier than for Bush. In the past, Michael has said he understands how events such as torture at Abu Ghraib drove his son’s killers to seek revenge, even though he disagreed with their methods.
“I truly think I have been able to forgive most of the people responsible — maybe not George Bush,” Michael says. “I say I forgave him and I have, but it’s like giving up cigarettes, maybe I forgave him like 100 times.”
It’s all part of a process -- a process that continues all these years later.
“I work on it. I really do,” he says. “Forgiveness has made me calmer.”
Contact Ryan Cormier of The News Journal at email@example.com or (302) 324-2863. Follow him on Facebook (@ryancormier), Twitter (@ryancormier) and Instagram (@ryancormier).
Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com