Marla Ruzicka, Center for Civilians in Conflict
For nearly 10 years there’s one person who has stood out for me as a personal hero and long-time source of inspiration. The heartbreaking part of it is: I never had the opportunity to meet her.
I spent 2005-2006 in Baghdad, Iraq, working at the US Embassy. It was a difficult year for me, made more difficult because my job involved speaking to families who lost civilian loved-ones in Iraq, working on American hostage cases and signing death certificates for non-military casualties. I can’t remember the exact number of death certificates I had to sign, but I think I stopped counting at 161. And it was hard. Every time. But 10 years later, there is one name I have never forgotten: Marla Ruzicka.
Marla was living the life I could have chosen, but did not have the courage to. We were about the same age and shared some of the same interests. But back in 2001, when I had the opportunity to work with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Afghanistan -- I also had the opportunity to become a diplomat with the State Department. I weighed my options: dig latrines in a refugee camp in Afghanistan or become a diplomate; dig latrines, diplomat -- the decision seemed very easy and very obvious to me -- become a diplomat. But Marla chose differently -- she chose Afghanistan.
From there she went to Iraq. And she was a powerhouse. Forming the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (later changed its name to Center for Civilians in Conflict) -- Marla took on the entire U.S. government, working to convince policy makers that we have a moral obligation and duty to compensate civilians and their families who are killed or injured by United States military efforts. Armed with the results of a survey she conducted, by knocking on doors in Iraq, Marla went to Washington. She got the attention of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), who sponsored legislation to provide $10 million in US aid to Iraqi civilians who had been harmed by the US military. But Marla didn’t stop there, she kept fighting. Until April 16, 2005. On that day, a car bomber, who likely was aiming for a US military entourage, went for the softer target instead and took out the car Marla and her translator were traveling in. She was just trying to help one more family before heading to a party she had organized at her hotel. She was 28.
Marla was killed before I got to Iraq. But within days of my arrival, my Iraqi co-workers told me all about her. She had been to the consulate shortly before her death to add new visa pages to her passport. They remembered how her smile lit up the waiting room and how kind she was to everyone. The Iraqis talked about her like a celebrity, she seemed larger than life in their eyes, a real hero. She was the only American (let alone the only young, blond woman -- blond hair really stands out in Iraq), putting her life at risk, to travel around war-torn Iraq, unprotected, to fight for them and their rights.
After telling me how amazing Marla was, they showed me photos taken at the scene of her death. I’m not sure why. I wish I could unsee what I saw. The bomb had completely burned the car and everything in it. Marla must have known the risks she was taking to give a voice to the voiceless, and she took it anyway. In that moment I was so shocked, horrified, saddened and humbled: I felt like her courage was beyond anything I could ever be capable of.
On the day that I had to sign Marla’s death certificate, I sat at my desk bawling my eyes out. I was so tempted to slip a personal note to her parents in the envelope, telling them how amazing their daughter was, how many Iraqi lives she touched just with her smile. But I didn't. I didn't know if it was appropriate or would be welcomed. So this is my note 10 years later.
Marla definitely lived greatly. If you’re moved by her and her work, you can visit her legacy, the Center for Civilians in Conflict here.
Do you know of anyone who is inspiring others to live greatly? For example, someone who founded a nonprofit organization or a volunteer who is making a difference in your community. If so we would love to hear about them!