Celeste Zappala placed flowers at her son’s grave last Saturday. Seven years ago, on April 26, 2004, Sgt. Sherwood R. Baker died in an explosion in Baghdad six weeks after his arrival.
Had he lived, the PA National Guardsman would have turned 38 today, and although his absence continues to pain his mother, his memory lives on through her zealous anti-war activism.
Baker, who grew up in Mt. Airy and attended the First United Methodist Church in Germantown, was the first PA Guardsman killed in combat since 1945.
Zappala, of Mt. Airy, said she was surprised when she learned her son would be sent off to war for the Iraq Survey Group (ISG). The group was in charge of searching for Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.
“We protested the war, and Sher was always caught in the middle,” Zappala said. The family has always practiced peace-activism.
The mother is a founding member of Gold Star Families Speak Out (GSFSO), a chapter of the larger organization, Military Families Speak Out (MFSO). The latter is an organization of people opposed to the war in Iraq, who have loved ones in the military. GSFSO is for families and loved ones with fallen soldiers.
Despite the years, Zappala holds a demonstration on the last Friday of every month at Broad and Arch streets, voicing her opposition to war.
“Sometimes it feels kind of lonely out there, but my thought is always, if you believe in something, you have to be a witness to what you believe in,” she said.
She’s used that faith, supporting the anti-war organization Grannies for Peace, who advocate military opt-out methods at high schools. Under opt-out, parents have the right to tell schools they do not want their child’s name released to military recruiters.
Grannies for Peace also knitted and donated stump socks for hospitalized soldiers with missing limbs at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center.
“We need to treat our military members with a great deal of respect and not use them as casualties,” she said Wednesday. “They should get every benefit and welfare we promised.”
Before joining the National Guard, her son was a caseworker for mentally challenged adults. “He made sure they had every benefit they were entitled to. He was their champion,” Zappala said.
Zappala has also supported anti-war organizations, such as Philly Against War, Brandywine Peace group. She’s also traveled around the country with the American Friends Service Committee, serving as their spokesperson.
Tomorrow, she’ll join protestors in Washington for Occupy D.C, and on Friday, she’ll join the OccupyPhilly event. Both days, she will protest for an end to the war, with her son’s life in mind.
“You couldn’t be miserable around him,” Zappala said. “He wouldn’t allow it.”