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2004-05-13

Parents of U.S. Soldier Killed In Iraq: "My Son Was Betrayed By the Bush Administration"

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On April 26, Sgt. Sherwood Baker was one of two soldiers killed in a building explosion in Baghdad. Baker became the first member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard to die in combat since 1945. He was 30 years old and leaves behind a wife and a 9 year old son. Today his parents, Alfred and Celeste Zappala, join us in our studio to talk about their son, the war and the lies behind the war. [includes rush transcript]

Last week, Sherwood Baker’s family buried the Pennsylvania Army National Guard soldier in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. He leaves behind a wife and a 9 year old son.

The 30-year-old Baker was one of two soldiers killed in a building explosion in Baghdad on April 26. He was the first member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard to die in combat since 1945. His parents, Alfred and Celeste Zappala, raised Baker from the time he was 13 months old, when they took him in as a foster child.

Last night they came to New York for a special advanced screening of Michael Moore’s new film Farenheight 9/11. Moore invited dozens of families who lost loved ones in Iraq to watch the film ahead of its release later this summer. Al and Celeste Zappara now join us in our firehouse studio.

  • Alfred Zappala, is the father of Sgt. Sherwood Baker, who was killed in Iraq April 26 in an explosion in Baghdad. Baker was the first member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard to die in combat since 1945.
  • Celeste Zappala, is the mother of Sgt. Sherwood Baker, who was killed in Iraq April 26 in an explosion in Baghdad. Baker was the first member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard to die in combat since 1945.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Al and Celeste Zappala now join us now in our firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!.

ALFRED ZAPPALA: Thank you.

CELESTE ZAPPALA: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: When did your son go to Iraq?

CELESTE ZAPPALA: He went on the 7th of March. He left from Fort Dix, so he actually arrived in Kuwait on the 8th, and then was in Baghdad by the following weekend.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how much communication you were able to receive from him while he was there, and what did he tell you about his experiences?

CELESTE ZAPPALA: We actually spoke to him frequently, because where he was stationed, he had access to a phone and access to email. He sent us messages and kept telling us that he and his guys would look out for each other, that they would protect each other. And how much he had missed us, and he was trying to send us support. You know, he was trying to help us get through this, and feel better. One time he did tell us that he had needed water because they were beginning to ration water, so we tried to send food and water and we actually sent food to him several days before he was killed. So, we — it never got there, of course.

AMY GOODMAN: Sherwood was a member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.

ALFRED ZAPPALA: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: The first to die since 1945. What made him decide to join, and then to go to Iraq?

ALFRED ZAPPALA: Well, Sherwood became a member of the National Guard seven years ago. There was a flood up in Wilkes-Barre, and I think this is what planted the seed in his mind to join. He was loading sandbags to help his community, and he was working alongside National Guardsmen who were also there to protect the community. I think that is when he thought — Sherwood is very community-minded. That’s when he thought of joining the National Guard. You know, it’s a very complex thing. It’s not only that, I mean, Sherwood did not have a high paying job. He had graduated college. He never got his teaching credentials because he had a child in his senior year of college and had to get a job. So, he worked in child care center making about $12,000 a year to support his wife and young boy. So, you know, there’s the issue of money, and the National Guard offered to pay off his student loans, which was about $10,000, which they never did, by the way. They had offered him some extra money to make on weekends, which he also worked as a DJ. He was always working. So, he joined the National Guard for all of those reasons. His enlistment was up the month that the United States invaded Iraq, and they extended him two years.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you agree with his decision to go to Iraq?

ALFRED ZAPPALA: His decision to go to Iraq — no. No. We — our whole family didn’t want to see him go. I really don’t know how Sherwood felt about going. He was committed to his men, to his unit, and he felt the responsibility. When we talked to him, he would never say what his feelings were about the war. My son Rafael has told me that he told him when he talked to Sherwood that, come on, Sherwood tell me. Tell me what you feel. I mean, Sherwood told him that it’s not relevant what I feel about this war. I can’t cloud my mind, it will just make me weak. I have to concentrate on my men and us all getting back safely.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Your son, in his letter to President Bush, talks about the early days of Sherwood. He was a foster child. Can you talk a little bit about how he entered your family and the rest of your family?

CELESTE ZAPPALA: Sure. Al and I had decided that we wanted to be parents, and one of the ways that we would do that would be to become foster parents before our other children were born. Sherwood came to us when he was 13 months old. He had been left by his biological family who couldn’t care for him. It was a random and wonderful thing that this little baby was given to us to care for. At first he was very quiet and didn’t speak and a little bit reserved, but over time, he grew to be big and loud and wonderful. He loved music. He loved entertaining people. He did magic tricks. He developed, and then we had our other children, and they were the brothers. They were always the brothers. He was the big brother. He protected them when they were little. He was 6’4". He was big from the time he was a little kid. He was everybody’s favorite baby-sitter. He was not always such a good student, but his teachers knew that he had a lot of heart and a lot of sweetness. We are a peace activist family. That, I based on my religious beliefs, and we were always trying to participate in creating social justice. Just as regular people. Sherwood went with us and participated in many demonstrations, marched in Washington. He was very knowledgeable, very outspoken and very committed. He was part of what we all have to understand is that he had a deep commitment to his community, to his people, to his family. He — you know, he believed in America. He really believed in America. The things that took him to war, was that he had an absolute commitment to the unit that he was with, to the men of Wilkes-Barre that he served with. He was proud of his service. We come from people who do service in the army. We are not strangers to this. But one assumes that the leaders who send young people to war would do so based on truth. And based on purpose. That seems not to have been the case.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to the parents of Sherwood Baker. He died in Iraq on April 26. Al and Celeste Zappala are with us. We’ll be continuing to talk to them of our break, and then we’ll turn to Bill Moyers to hear him give a speech on the state of media in a time of war. Stay with us.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman, here with Juan Gonzalez. Our guests are Al and Celeste Zappala. They have lost their son, Sherwood Baker, in Iraq. He died on April 26 in Baghdad. How did you hear? How did you learn of your son’s death?

CELESTE ZAPPALA: I had come home from work and I was preparing dinner in the kitchen. The front door was open. It was raining, and I didn’t have the porch light on. Our dog started barking and lunging for the door. I went to the porch and saw a man standing there with a notebook. At first I thought he must be selling magazines. I couldn’t see because the light was off. Then I began to see the medals. He thought, maybe he’s here because the election is tomorrow. He must want to tell me something. It all began to make sense, why he was there. He said, are you Sherwood’s mother? Are you Sherwood’s mother? And I just started to scream and scream and scream. I could hear myself screaming. And he just stood there and he — a neighbor heard me screaming and came to me and lifted me up. He told us that — I knew that someone had been killed that day. I kept saying it to him, was it the factory, was it the factory. But he wasn’t able to give us information. We haven’t gotten so much detail. But it was just — just a terrible —- the really worst moment of my life. And Sherwood’s wife had called -—

ALFRED ZAPPALA: Sherwood’s wife called me hysterically. It wasn’t sinking in. I thought, who is this woman calling me? Why is she crying? She told me that Sherwood’s been killed. Sherwood’s been killed. You know, she said she tried to call Celeste, but she wasn’t home. I said, look, don’t call on her cell phone. I don’t — you know, if she’s driving in a car, I’ll go over there. I had to drive across town, and I drove through a rainstorm and through my tears and through the rain outside, and I got to Celeste’s house. I guess it was about five minutes after this army military man had told Celeste.

AMY GOODMAN: Your son, Sherwood, had written a letter to the "Times Leader" a couple of years ago. Can you read a piece of it?

CELESTE ZAPPALA: Sure. He was very concerned that the school district where he was did not observe Martin Luther King’s birthday, so he wrote a letter talking about how important it is to observe the contributions of all Americans. He says, "Since 9/11, there have been a resurgence of patriotic feelings and demonstrations of our love for America, but we need to remember all that is great about America and all of those who have made our nation what it is today. America has not always been so great. We as a nation have learned from our mistakes and we need to continue to learn from them." Then he goes on to talk about how people of every color and religion and culture have contributed to what has made America great, and that we have to honor and teach all of the facts that molded our great nation and our children into knowledgeable adults who are not ignorant of their shaded past. When I found this letter yesterday, I had been looking for it. We had it and I thought it was prophetic. I really did, that he was writing about how much he loved this country and how America can learn. America learns. America changes. America has the contributions of all kinds of people. I didn’t know that he would be the person — one of the people who gave his life, but I believe that he had some faith — he has faith in the democracy of America. What I have been trying to say to people is Sherwood was defending — he was supposedly defending democracy, well, this is a democracy he lives in. This is the democracy we all live in, and we all have to be responsible for what is happening. We all have to know what’s happening. We have to deal in the truth. And if we all take that responsibility, if we all insist on hearing the truth, insist on knowing what the facts are, or insist on knowing why decisions are made and how they’re made and what purpose and what plan, because it belongs to all of us. It belongs to all of us. My son is a soldier in the American army. He was everybody’s soldier. He was everybody’s son. I cannot — cannot and will not stop trying to speak the truth, and get other people to speak the truth.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And your sense now, with the casualties mounting, soldiers and civilians in Iraq, your sense of the purpose for which he died?

ALFRED ZAPPALA: You know, my son was betrayed by the Bush administration. This whole — you know, people make analogies between Vietnam and Iraq, and I think the big difference is that it took years to find out the lies in Vietnam, and we have discovered these lies in less than a year.

CELESTE ZAPPALA:

And knew it going in. And knew it going in.

ALFRED ZAPPALA:

And, you know, we’re into this war for no reason at all. I mean, well, we’re in it for reasons that Bush wants us in for, but not for — not what he told the American people. Not about weapons of mass destruction, not about any of that stuff.

CELESTE ZAPPALA:

Not al-Qaeda ties.

ALFRED ZAPPALA:

Right. So, you know, it was a senseless death, just like all those other boys.

CELESTE ZAPPALA:

And girls.

ALFRED ZAPPALA:

And — yes. And the 10,000-plus Iraqi citizens that have been killed in Iraq. I mean, it’s just going on and on.

CELESTE ZAPPALA:

I feel like we’ve opened the gates of Hell, and we don’t know how to close them, and we don’t know why we’ve done it now.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Al and Celeste Zappala. They have lost their son, Sherwood Baker, in Iraq on April 26. They’re here in New York last night. They saw a screening of Michael Moore’s film, "Fahrenheit 9/11."

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