United Methodist mom questions son’s death in Iraq

As President George W. Bush's motorcade sped by, Celeste Zappala stood behind a police line, singing and waving a cross bearing the name of her fallen son.

Zappala wanted to meet the commander in chief and ask him about his rationale for starting the war against Iraq. Her son, Sgt. Sherwood Baker, 30, died there last year.

"He literally was killed looking for the weapons of mass destruction that never existed," she said, standing under the sweltering Texas sun at a makeshift anti-war camp set up near President Bush's ranch.

Zappala, a United Methodist, traveled from her home in Philadelphia to Texas to support a friend who also lost a son in Iraq. Cindy Sheehan is making international headlines after pitching a tent alongside the country road leading to the president's ranch. She has vowed to stay there through his monthlong vacation unless he agrees to meet and listen to her concerns about the war.

"I now live in a different universe than I used to live in," Zappala said. "I try to keep my grief in check so I can function and I can work, and at least twice a day, I fall apart."

Zappala said her faith and her church, First United Methodist Church of Germantown, have helped her through the ordeal. Several of the denomination's leaders joined her in Crawford to hold a prayer service Aug. 12.

"I work really hard at not being angry. I draw on my faith," she said. "Sometimes my anger gets the best of me. But I try to be faithful."

Sgt. Baker, a foster child raised by Zappala since he was an infant, was a social worker who helped mentally challenged adults. After his Pennsylvania National Guard unit was called to active duty, Baker was protecting an Iraq Survey Group searching the country for weapons of mass destruction - a major justification for the United States going to war.

"When the report came out there were no weapons of mass destruction, I was screaming and crying that somebody needs to come here and apologize to me," Zappala said.

"And then nobody seemed to care. It just went away."

Joining Zappala in Crawford were the Rev. Bob Edgar, a United Methodist pastor who is top staff executive of the National Council of the Churches and a former congressman; retired Bishop Joe Wilson, now bishop-in-residence at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas; William McElvaney, a professor emeritus at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas; and the Rev. Andrew Weaver, a research psychologist and author from Brooklyn.

Edgar said his visit was not political or partisan.

"It's a no-brainer," he said. "If the president can go to a barbecue and throw out the first pitch of a Little League baseball game, he can give these family members a hug and offer them his best wishes. One doesn't have to agree with their views to show compassion."

Wilson said he came to Crawford to offer pastoral care to those who lost loved ones in the war. But he said he was surprised by President Bush's pursuit of the war against Iraq. The president is also a United Methodist.

Wilson noted the United Methodist Council of Bishops adopted a resolution that "laments the continued warfare" in Iraq and questioned whether the reasons for going to war were misrepresented.

The Rev. Beth Stroud, who works in a lay position at Zappala's church, said the congregation and community were devastated by word that Baker was killed in an explosion in Baghdad. Baker grew up in the church. He lived in Plymouth, Pa., and was married and the father of a 9-year-old son.

"I visited Celeste shortly after she got the news," Stroud said. "Through her tears, she said, 'Now, maybe they'll listen.'"

Edgar said he believes President Bush is "eventually going to do the right thing" and meet with Zappala, Sheehan and other families questioning the war's justification. So far, there are no signs of that happening.

"The president has told us that Jesus has changed his heart," Edgar said. "My prayer is that he will change his mind."

Bush did meet with Sheehan shortly after her son's death, before she became outspoken about the war, according to news reports. The president has met with about 900 family members of soldiers killed in Iraq, according to Newsweek magazine.

The president's motorcade passed by the families twice Aug. 12 - on the way to and returning from a barbecue honoring some of his biggest fund-raisers. The barbecue was held at a nearby ranch.

Dozens of state troopers, sheriff's deputies and Secret Service agents stood along the road in front of the families as the motorcade went by.

While still declining to meet with Sheehan, Zappala and other families who came to Crawford, President Bush told reporters pulling out American troops too soon would "betray the Iraqis."

"I sympathize with Mrs. Sheehan," he said. "I've heard her position from others, which is 'get out of Iraq now.' And it would be, it would be a mistake for the security of this country and the ability to lay the foundations for peace in the long run if we were to do so."

Sheehan decided to go to Crawford while attending a Veterans for Peace conference in Dallas. At the time, she had no idea she would quickly become an international icon for those questioning the war.

About 200 people had gathered at the protest site when the presidential motorcade passed. The crowd included relatives of half a dozen troops who were killed in Iraq. Others have come from across the country to support Sheehan and other families.

"I expected some support, but this is just amazing to me," Sheehan said. "People should not be dying. They need to get out of there as soon as possible."

Sheehan is not without her detractors. She was confronted in Crawford by an Iraq veteran who identified himself as Phil Kiver of Cheney, Wash.

Kiver told Sheehan the number of troops killed in Iraq was a "drop in the bucket." Sheehan stepped aside, talked to him several minutes and hugged him.

Zappala's son, Dante Zappala, also came to Crawford to be a "witness to the truth and share our humble story."

Celeste Zappala is finding she is not alone in her quest for answers. More than 11,000 people have signed an online statement of solidarity at www.faithfulamerica.org, the Web site of a National Council of Churches program.

Zappala is not sure what the future holds, or if she will ever be able to personally share her grief and concerns with President Bush.

"I don't know what happens," she said. "But I believe we're doing the right thing, and that's all I can do."

*Gordon is a freelance producer and writer based in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]

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