Milagritos Perez-Dalis is the daughter of Leland Haun, one of the 19 airmen killed in the Khobar Towers explosion on June 25, 1996, in Saudi Arabia. Today, she is a 29-year-old mother of three living in Tucson, struggling to get by. She feels the tragedy that her father and her family endured has been largely ignored by both the government and community. The recently released film The Kingdom, directed by Peter Berg, features a plot eerily familiar to the Khobar Towers scenario, and it has reignited Milly's fire to draw attention to the incident--overshadowed by Sept. 11--and finally find justice for her father.
How has life changed since your father's death?
Life has been so hard. The years go by, and we've suffered so much. I've battled through depressions and thoughts of suicide, and everyone says, "Get over it. He's dead." No one says that to victims of Sept. 11. I want to hear of the Sept. 11 families who live on welfare, food stamps, who've lost everything. The Sept. 11 people have their money, and they're still whining. I can't pay my $23 phone bill. This (Khobar attack) happened long before Sept. 11, but still, we're pushed aside as if it never happened.
You've seen The Kingdom. How do you feel about it?
We didn't even know about the movie until a week before it came out. We got an e-mail from a producer at NBC Universal saying, "We're sorry for your loss, but the movie had nothing to do with it. It's not based on anything real." In reality, the only difference is that 19 airmen died, not 200 civilians (as depicted in The Kingdom). Then (the e-mail) said they were going to put their names (of the 19 airmen) in the credits. They came right before "no animals were harmed while making this film" at the very end. ... They're profiting from our loss, and they don't even give us any respect. They never asked us if they could put the names. ... They did it so we would keep quiet; they did it as a "favor."
I read in the Arizona Daily Star that you were awarded $7 million from a 10-year-long court battle. Tell me about that.
We (the victim's families) are the first Americans who successfully sued another country and held them responsible for terrorist acts. It was found that Iran funded the equipment that made it possible to carry out this attack. But right now, we're poor millionaires. We don't know when we'll ever see that money. We're hoping more to find who did it and those answers; they're still looking for five people. It's still an open case. I tell my mother this: "If someone did wrong, the court doesn't award you your heart back. It awards you currency, something that you can hold onto now."
I also read that you plan to use part of that money to help other victims of terrorism.
I want to open a nonprofit organization that will provide therapy for people who have lost a loved one in a case like this. I don't want anyone to go through the system like I did. I needed help, and because I asked for help, they threw me in a psych ward in Florida with heroin addicts. Within a week, I was on five medications. No one ever tried to talk to me, and that's what I needed.
Do you remember where you were, what you were doing, when you found out your father had been killed?
When I found out, gosh, I'll never forget. We had an apartment in Florida, my ex-husband and I. My twins were toddlers at the time, and I had just got them to bed. It was 2:30 in the morning, and the phone rings. It was my sister-in-law, and she was pregnant at the time. She sounded hysterical, so I said, 'The baby's coming; we're on our way!" And she said, "No, Milly. Your Dad's dead."
You said the last conversation you had as a family was about death. Do you remember the last thing you said to your father? The last hug?
Yes, I'll never forget it. After dinner, I'm getting my twins into the car, and my dad was waving from the front door. My ex-husband said, "Aren't you going to give him a hug?" And I said, "He'll be back." It's one of those things I've played over and over again in my mind. Apparently, my dad had told my mom that there had been many death threats in the last three months, and for some reason, that time around, he knew he wasn't coming back. ... My mom always said he would have wanted to die in a war.
If you could create an event to commemorate your father and the other men who lost their lives that day, what would it be?
Why not gather every family member who has lost someone in a terrorist attack bombing, and have a celebration at the capitol--just to have a moment to know that someone somewhere is feeling the same pain we are?