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Remembering the Champion of the Innocent

Nearly a month after she was killed by Iraqi insurgents in a car bombing, the life and work of Marla Ruzicka will be recognized Saturday on Capitol Hill. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who served as her primary Congressional ally, will host the event honoring Ruzicka, an advocate for civilians killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The event, which will run from 2 to 4 p.m. in the Senate Caucus Room, will feature an “eclectic

mix” of speakers, according to Leahy spokesman Tim Rieser. Among those scheduled to participate are the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, Samir Shakir Sumaidaie, war correspondents such as Peter Bergen and Steve Connors, and Robert Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.

Ruzicka founded the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict in 2003, which is an organization dedicated to giving aid to families harmed in the recent Afghan and Iraqi conflicts. She was among the first civilians on the ground in Afghanistan and spent her time there compiling a list of those who had been injured in some way by the allied forces who unseated the Taliban.

A week after coming back to the United States she began lobbying the Senate Appropriations Committee to set up a victim’s compensation fund for civilians hurt in the war. She was so instrumental in convincing Leahy and others to support the bill that in the most recent budget supplemental the Iraq civilian assistance program was renamed the Marla Ruzicka Iraqi War Victims Fund.

She had been in Iraq intermittently since just before the war started in March 2003. She was on her way to help a young girl whose parents had been killed when the car bomb that took her life exploded.

“These programs were established in Afghanistan and Iraq to focus on the civilian victims of war,” Rieser said in an interview. “The Pentagon has become quite supportive of them because it’s a way to redress some of the resentment and anger that these casualties have caused.”

The Pentagon does not keep track of the number of civilian casualties, but realistic estimates from the two conflicts range from a few thousand to tens of thousands. The goal of the assistance programs is to give families who have been injured in the war a way to get back on their feet.

“It could mean helping a woman who has six kids and has lost her husband because he was shot by mistake start a business,” Rieser said. “Getting a child an artificial limb because of an accident with a cluster-bomb, or buying a flock of sheep for a 15-year-old boy whose family died when a bomb hit their house.”

Through her tireless lobbying efforts, Ruzicka was able to attain almost $30 million for civilian victims of the two wars.

“It took a year of negotiations by Leahy and his staff to come up with an approach that everyone felt comfortable with,” Rieser said. “I think the results speak for themselves. Marla is important because she brought up these issues, she brought them to the public eye. … It was her initiative.”

April Pedersen, acting executive director of CIVIC, remembers Ruzicka as someone who “was extremely energetic. She loved life and told everyone that.”

Ruzicka’s philosophy in regard to her actions on behalf of those hurt in war was simple: “If the U.S. was responsible for suffering, it should help those who have been hurt.”

In remembrance of its founder, Pedersen sees a new objective for CIVIC. “We’re now going to build on and institutionalize the work. Our objective is to see this … become a permanent part of U.S. actions in conflicts. We want victims of violence and war not be forgotten. … If there are injuries and deaths, we want the Iraqis, and the military, to know what to do.”

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