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Iraq Veterans, Military Mothers and Peace Activists Discuss Bush and Iraq

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As President Bush and Cindy Sheehan both return to Camp Casey, we speak with one of the other founders of Gold Star Families for Peace, Celeste Zappala, a peace activist in Idaho, where President Bush just addressed the National Guard as well as a marine who’s recently returned from Iraq. [includes rush transcript]

  • Celeste Zappala, 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.
  • Alex Ryabov, part of a Marine Corps artillery unit during the initial invasion of Iraq in March 2003. He lives in New York and is a co-founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
  • Liz Paul, organizer with the Idaho Peace Coalition.

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

AMY GOODMAN: On the phone with us right now from Philadelphia, we’re joined by Celeste Zappala, one of the founders of Gold Star Families for Peace, the mother of Sergeant 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 World War II. In our studio here in New York, we’re joined by Alex Ryabov. He was part of a Marine Corps artillery unit during the initial invasion of Iraq in March 2003. He lives here in New York and is co-founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War. And we’re joined in Idaho by Liz Paul, an organizer with the Idaho Peace Coalition, President Bush just in Idaho last night.

I wanted to start with Celeste Zappala and ask Celeste to respond to what President Bush said yesterday in Idaho. He singled out Tammy Pruett, whose four boys are in Iraq right now. She was sitting with her husband, and Bush said, as we just heard, “Tammy says this —- and I want you to hear this -—,” President Bush said, “'I know that if something happens to one of the boys, they would leave this world doing what they believe, what they think is right for our country, and I guess you couldn't ask for a better way of life than giving it for something you believe in.’” President Bush said America lives in freedom because of families like the Pruetts. Your response?

CELESTE ZAPPALA: Well, I guess, Amy, I was a little shocked to hear that kind of statement, and what went through my mind was, God willing, she never has to have that experience. I just found it kind of an unusual thing to say, and thinking that the reality of that loss would be so devastating, and it is, it’s so terrible and painful and — that to kind of act as if this would be a desirable thing, I just found it appalling and kind of opportunistic on the President’s part.

And I also thought about all the families who are sitting in Crawford who have already lost someone and who are ignored. I also thought of the family from Georgia, the Wait family, who has five family members who have served a total of 58 months of service in Iraq, and they’re opposed to the war. I mean, it’s almost —- you know, I don’t want to be part of dueling families, and I respect the service of all of the people who would give their lives towards the country. I mean, that’s a whole different thing than the policy of this administration, and -—

Oh, you know, I listened to that speech, and it seemed so jingoistic and actually empty because there wasn’t actually much in terms of a plan. It was kind of a lot of flag-waving, well scripted —- you know, I think the President’s script writers did a real nice job, but in terms of giving our country a direction, of telling us any new information about when our soldiers are coming home or about plans for peace or answering any of the questions that all of us have been raising about the war. You know, it was shallow. And I, you know, respond to it very much as representing all of the families who were waiting for their turn to speak and feel that, you know, the President so carefully talks to people who agree with him. You have to have a ticket that says you agree in order to get near the President, and if we’re -—


CELESTE ZAPPALA: If we’re a democracy, how is it that the voices of people who disagree, who have served, who have paid the ultimate price, how is it our families can’t be heard? How are we belittled and ignored?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Celeste, I’d like to ask you, what’s your reaction to some of these commentators on Fox News, calling the folks in Crawford anti-war extremists?

CELESTE ZAPPALA: Oh, isn’t that silly? You know, anti-war — what does that mean, anti-war extremist? I’m a peace extremist, you know? I want people to start taking responsibility for the behavior of their nation. I want my representatives to get a spine and stand up and start leading. I want accountability for all the terrible mistakes that have occurred that have put us in this dreadful situation. You know, I proudly wear the banner of — a badge of being a person for peace, and you know, people can criticize. It’s okay. They need to do that. They get paid to do that. So be it. You know, part of what I hoped to do when we, you know, began this journey of speaking the truth was to get a national dialogue going, and part of the national dialogue will be the people who disagree and criticize and find fault and try to shame us, but I would say to any of those folks, you know, especially the commentators, you know, kind of the rabid commentators, talk to me after you have a loved one serving. Then we can have a different conversation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Thank you. And that was actually just to correct the record, that was Norah O’Donnell of MSNBC, not Fox. I don’t want to blame Fox for things other than what they already do.

AMY GOODMAN: On MSNBC, they call them “extremists;” on Fox, “traitors.”


AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to bring in also Alex Ryabov. You were in Iraq in the initial invasion. Could you talk to us a little about how you reached your viewpoints on the war and decided to organize a veterans group against the war?

ALEX RYABOV: Right. The thing is before going to Iraq, the reasons were questionable. We even had our first sergeant come out and tell us — you know, this man’s a veteran of the first Persian Gulf war, been in the Marine Corps twenty-plus years, and he actually, after our commanding officer told us that, yes, we are going to Iraq, he came out to talk to us and said, “In going to Iraq, don’t think you’re going to be heroes, don’t think you’re going there to topple Saddam, find weapons of mass destruction or make Iraq safe for democracy.” He said, “You’re going there for one reason and one reason alone, and that’s oil.” And this is our first sergeant telling us this.

AMY GOODMAN: Where were you when he said that?

ALEX RYABOV: This was at Camp Lejeune. This was on base. And, you know, a lot of the younger guys were taken aback by this, because these were — it’s not the official reason for going to Iraq. This is not what’s being plastered all over the media. But, you know, guys like myself who had been in for a while just — we knew the government was involved in underhanded things, and it seemed this time that we would be involved in one.

AMY GOODMAN: How old are you?

ALEX RYABOV: What’s that?

AMY GOODMAN: How old are you?

ALEX RYABOV: I’m 22. At the time we were going to Iraq, I was 20. So we found out, we packed up our gear, which was inadequate, as far as totally unarmored vehicles. We received one plate of — one ballistic plate for body armor, instead of two. You are supposed to have one for your chest, one for your back. We actually had all of our vehicles, all things like that were green camouflage. The green camouflage netting we actually put up in a combat zone. You know, it didn’t do much as far as trying to hide us. Here’s, you know, the desert, and here’s this big green thing with, you know, silver cannon tubes sticking out from under it.

AMY GOODMAN: If you were given one instead of two plates, did you put them on your front or your back?

ALEX RYABOV: Well, I kept mine in the front. We had certain guys that would kind of rotate them depending on situations. Sometimes we would get intelligence, where we were supposedly going to get attacked from the west, and, you know, we’re going to get mortars or something, so guys would put the plate on their backs, so that way when they jump in their hole, they have some additional protection. And now, as far as the ammunition trucks go and most of the vehicles, you know, all of the vehicles were combat loading, meaning every vehicle had some amount of ammunition. And when we were hardening these vehicles by just putting sandbags on the floorboards, and you have, for example, on ammunition trucks, 10,000-plus pounds of high explosives and artillery shells, those sandbags won’t do anything.

And so, being in Iraq and seeing all kinds of things like, you know, dead bodies for the first time, seeing the results of our artillery fire and, you know, seeing those, being artillery you’re firing upwards of 15 miles away. You don’t get to see your target. You normally don’t get to see the results. At one point we had fired at an Iraqi artillery unit. And passing by, we were told they were going to be on the right side of the road. Looking over there, I saw a piece of metal, another piece of metal further away, and everything else was just gone. It looked like the soil had been freshly tilled, like someone had put all the people, artillery pieces, anything that had been in the area into a giant blender, spun it around and poured it back over the ground.

And, you know, every time we would see these kind of things, like, you know, dead bodies on the road, burnt and destroyed vehicles, we’d just keep going, because, you know, mission accomplishment. We have a position to get to, stuff like that. There was a time where we passed a — there was a wounded — a civilian had a gunshot wound in his thigh. We passed by because we had to keep going.

And one of the main things really, the thing that made the most impact on me in Iraq was going up to Tikrit. By this point, most of our or a lot of our cargo vehicles had the windshields blown out because of the concussion of firing, you know, these charges. These gun powder charges are in excess of 40 pounds. So windshield shattered, tossed it out. We’re moving up the road maybe 45 miles an hour, and it’s about 4:00 in the morning. And the way that the howitzer is towed, it’s towed like a trailer. And some smart person must have come up with this, because the barrel goes at about a 45 to 60 degree angle and lines up directly or almost directly with the windshield of the vehicle behind it. So the vehicle in front of us kicked up a lot of sand and dust. We weren’t able to see them, and we ended up running into the howitzer, the barrel of the howitzer. And you can imagine something roughly the diameter and almost the length of a steel telephone pole went through where the windshield used to be, brushed my right shoulder and went out the back of the cab. And we came to a stop.

Now, after we reversed, the roof ended up nearly coming off our vehicle and falling to the ground. And finally, when we got moving, you know, we’re still kind of in a shock, and you couldn’t smoke any cigarettes because it was nighttime. When daytime hit, you know, aside from smoking a lot of cigarettes, I looked at my right shoulder, and the desert uniforms are a pretty light color, and the entire right shoulder, you know, was completely covered, was totally pitch black and gun powder residue and carbon from this barrel, meaning that had it been another six inches to my left, I wouldn’t be here right now.

So given all these things that happened, at the time you are in Iraq, you really for the most part don’t have time to deal with it, because, you know, things are moving so fast. You inadvertently begin to, you know, block it out. It was after coming back and actually, you know, seeing this stuff continue on CNN, and that’s the only thing that was on on the channel, breakfast, lunch and dinner, seeing the body counts continue to rise on both sides and, you know, maybe after a short time of this, something clicked and I realized this war is wrong. We should not be over there, and at the same time still have a year left in the Marines, so I really had to keep my mouth shut and wait until I got out.

AMY GOODMAN: Alex Ryabov is one of the people who started Iraq Veterans Against the War here in New York. Also on the line with us is Liz Paul. And yesterday when President Bush was addressing the Idaho National Guard, she was just outside with a group of people. How many people were there, and why were you, Liz?

LIZ PAUL: The President spoke yesterday morning in a big pavilion in Nampa, Idaho, and, well, you know, it was a gigantic parking lot and stuff. And we had over 150 protesters. People had to show up 7:30 a.m., line the sidewalk in front of the Idaho Center, and a wide variety of signs, posters, banners, a lot of enthusiasm, and then the Idaho Center has a, what they call a free speech policy, and they allow some protesters to come onto the property, and they’re segregated into the groups of either two or three and placed in these little locations around the parking lot with little ropes around them. And so we had reserved a few of those sites as well.

And we had two mothers who have sons serving in Iraq now, and then also in one of the areas, and then we had the Veterans for Peace chapter here in Boise had members in one of them. So, we were all there as tens, you know, thousands of people, it felt like, were lined up, you know, just snaked around since early hours of the morning. And they would just slowly go by these free speech areas. And I spent some time with the moms for a while, and a lot of little kids coming in to see the President, and they’re saying, “Mommy,” you know, “what does that sign say? What does that sign say?” Quite a — it was quite a moving experience, and everybody was respectful on both sides.

So, we were there to let the president know — I mean, we had protests in Idaho from touchdown on Monday to takeoff early yesterday afternoon. And really, an enormous outpouring of Idahoans to say to the President that we want to end the occupation, we want the troops home now. We certainly had a theme running through all the demonstrations that there are Cindys and Caseys in every town across America, and the President may be able to come to Idaho and go mountain bike riding, but he is not going to escape the protests of those that are sick and tired of this war and want it ended now.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, among the people that President Bush met with, parents of those in Iraq, who have lost their children or their husbands — in one particular case, a woman seeing Bush for the second time, and that would be the case with Cindy Sheehan, and they have used the argument that she already saw him. Celeste Zappala, you were in Utah when President Bush was there the day before in Salt Lake City, but you were speaking outside. What was that experience like? I mean, clearly going to places where the majority of people voted for President Bush in the last election.

CELESTE ZAPPALA: It was a stunning experience to me. I had gone there with the hope that at least 200 people would come out to the Pioneer Park to hear what we had to say, and while driving to the park, I saw hundreds of people carrying signs walking the streets, and I was afraid they were demonstrators for Bush. And I was a little bit afraid, thinking so many people would come out against us, and then I realized they were for us. They were coming from all directions with homemade signs saying, you know, “Bring the troops home now.” “This war is based on lies.” You know, lots of creative things, little kids, couples, old folks in wheelchairs. Mormons for peace. I mean, it was just an extraordinary good thing. And the mayor of the city of Salt Lake came to speak at our rally, telling the — you know, the whole city that he felt that the Bush administration has betrayed this country. So, we ended up with about 2,000 people where I had prayed for 200. And the feeling amongst the people, their willingness to stand there for a couple of hours and listen and participate and line the streets, you know, cheer when trucks went by. They honked at us and stuff. It was just — it was amazing to me. This was Salt Lake City. And if that level of passion exists there, then, you know, I think we’re opening up something pretty amazing across America.

AMY GOODMAN: Celeste Zappala, I want to thank you for being with us, Gold Star Families for Peace, one of the founders, mother of Sergeant Sherwood Baker who died in Iraq last year. Alex Ryabov, thanks for being with us. Alex was in the Marine Corps artillery unit during the invasion of Iraq, co-founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War. And joining us from Idaho, Liz Paul, an organizer with the Idaho Peace Coalition.

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