Breaking The Code:
“Sherwood and I were at the local Wal-Mart a few weeks before he deployed to Iraq. He was in the Pennsylvania National Guard and had to buy protective eye gear, two-way radios and other equipment that the Army wasn’t providing. The Great Mandala, an old sixties protest song by Peter, Paul, and Mary, came on the store’s sound system, and I had a premonition that my son was going to die.”
Celeste Zappala removes her glasses and wipes her eyes before continuing, “So I’m standing in the aisle of this big store, leaning against a shelf, sobbing because my baby’s going off to war, and I’ve got this aching feeling in my gut that I’ll never see him again.”
Zappala and I met in Fayetteville, N.C., home to Fort Bragg and the Army’s 82nd Airborne division, along with 100 Military Families Speak Out (MFSO) members and more than 4,000 other pacifist and anti-war groups for a major demonstration on March 19, 2005, the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. It took everything I had to bear witness to her nearly tangible grief, knowing my husband will never tell me just how narrowly I escaped her same sorrow.
Nearly a year after President Bush declared that major combat operations were over, Zappala’s son, Sergeant Sherwood Baker, was killed while searching for weapons of mass destruction. In the military’s official tally of American soldiers killed in Iraq, Baker is number 720 of 1,521. His relatives are part of a growing movement of military families who are actively opposing the Iraq war and occupation while working to support the troops, bring them home now, and take care of them when they get here. I joined shortly after my husband got the call that he was going to war in October of 2003. Military Families Speak Out currently has over 2,000 members, and three to 20 new families join daily.
MFSO was founded by Nancy Lessin and Charley Richardson in November of 2002. In the months leading up to the invasion, Lessin and Richardson noticed that the people who were saying, “We gotta go to war!” weren’t going anywhere, nor were their kids. They made their first poster in the fall of 2002. It said, “Our Son Is a Marine. Don’t Send Him to War for Oil.”
Breaking the long-standing code of silence in military families has a price. Lessin and Richardson have received death threats, and some of us have been spit on, had things thrown at us, and have been physically challenged at peaceful marches and rallies where counter-protesters scream epithets. We’re called unpatriotic and treasonous, a disgrace to our loved ones, and worse. We’ve received hateful letters, phone calls and e-mails from people we’ve never met, people who’ve never served and have no loved ones who’ve risked or lost their lives in Iraq. We’re told that the troops are defending democracy, but we’re demonized for practicing it.
Although our efforts have been responsible for some much-needed changes, many of us have been ostracized from the military community for demanding that the administration quit outfitting troops with Vietnam-era flak jackets held together with duct tape and dental floss, colored bright orange like hunter’s vests. We’re accused of whining when we ask that our soldiers be given sufficient water and food, not the single daily ration many of them received in the early days of the invasion. Because we’ve consistently spoken out about the lack of body and vehicle armor, some of our loved ones have experienced repercussions while serving in Iraq. We’re disparaged when we point out that the Bush administration itself has acknowledged the reasons for the invasion were false.
But we’ve also been embraced by United for Peace and Justice, a coalition of over 1,000 anti-war groups, as well as U.S. Labor Against the War, representing 9,564,800 people who have officially come out against the war. MFSO received the prestigious Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award (2004) from the Institute for Policy Studies, and has been credited for reinvigorating the peace movement. We’ve gotten letters of support from military families afraid to speak out, as well as some of the nearly 40 percent of troops in Iraq who have serious doubts about why they’re there.
MFSO member Larry Syverson has two sons who served in Iraq. Syverson stands every week in front of the Federal Building in Richmond with a sign that reads, “Iraqi oil is not worth my sons’ blood” – and has gotten some grief for it. Syverson’s son Bryce wrote from Iraq, “You tell those people to either pick up a gun and come over here and help me out, or pick up a sign and join you in getting us the hell home!”
Some of our families opposed this war from the start; and others supported the invasion, only to learn it was a war based on lies. By and large, the people in MFSO identify as pro-military, not pro-peace. MFSO members are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents; we are long-time military families, pacifists, feminists, and labor organizers. MFSO ranks include veterans of the Korean, Vietnam, and first Gulf Wars. I’ve marched beside gray-haired parents who protested during the Vietnam War and are stunned to be protesting again; they are barely able to comprehend that they’re doing it on behalf of their kids.
David Segal of the University of Maryland’s Center for Research on Military Organizations said, “This is the first war I can remember in which the nucleus of the anti-war movement was not found on college campuses, but in Reserve households.”
Most MFSO members have never been politically active, and the majority have never spoken out against any military action taken by the United States until now. MFSO member Angie Blickenstaff, widowed at 23 when her National Guard husband died in Iraq, is a former self-professed couch potato, as is Cindy Sheehan.
Casey Sheehan re-enlisted in August of 2003 and died on April 4th, 2004 at the age of 24. Cindy Sheehan was informed by CNN. Like all of us with a soldier overseas, the Sheehan family has a love-hate relationship with the media coverage of the war in Iraq. Her family was eating supper with the television tuned to the nightly news story about the Sadr City attack in early April 2004. As the footage rolled, they watched, helpless and horrified, as their first-born died. A few hours later, three military officers at the front door confirmed his death.
Sheehan was buried 46 days before his 25th birthday, and Cindy Sheehan beat back the overwhelming urge to lay down in that grave with her boy. It’s a battle she fights every day. Elaine Johnson’s 22-year-old son died in a different battle, when the Chinook Helicopter he was riding in, not properly outfitted with an anti-missile system, was shot down in Iraq.
The combined death toll of soldier and civilian casualties in Iraq will surpass 150,000 sometime this year, and hundreds of thousands have been wounded, permanently disabled, or diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. The landscape of Iraq has been irrevocably changed by bombs, and I suspect the before-and-after photos of Fallujah and the seaside cities of Southern Asia, devastated by a massive tsunami that killed at least 170,000 people, have much in common. We rushed to aid the injured in Asia, and no one calls their dead collateral damage because that’s a tragedy; this is war. But if we have a spiritual, moral, and humanitarian mandate to alleviate suffering, then surely we are ordained not to inflict it.
Celeste Zappala’s greatest desire is to keep other mothers from suffering as she has. “I stood in the store that day, knowing he was going to die, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. But I will do everything I can to stop it for someone else.”
Stacy Bannerman is on the Advisory Committee of Military Families Speak Out. Her husband is a Sergeant First Class, Mortars Platoon, with the Washington Army National Guard’s 81st Brigade. He deployed to LSA Anaconda, located in the Sunni Triangle approximately 50 miles north of Baghdad, Iraq, in March of 2004 and returned home on March 11, 2005.
©2005 Caliope Publishing Company
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