Celeste Zappala, a lifelong Methodist, is a member of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, in Philadelphia, and co-founder of Gold Star Families for Peace. Her son, Sherwood Baker, a sergeant in the Pennsylvania National Guard, arrived in Baghdad at the beginning of 2004, serving as a member of the military security detail for the Iraq Survey Group, which was looking for weapons of mass destruction. On April 24, 2004, Sgt. Baker's unit was in Baghdad inspecting buildings when the building he was in exploded, killing him. He was 30 years old.

Talk about your son who was killed in Iraq.

Sherwood Baker came to me on Veteran's Day in 1974. He had been abandoned by his biological family, so I always say that by a random series of blessings, he became my son. He was a year old.

He joined the National Guard in 1997. At that point, he was living in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He had gone to college there and married and had a child there. He was a nursery school teacher, making next to nothing, and needed help paying off his college loans. Also, we raised our kids to be really responsible people, and to be civic-minded.

He had been sand-bagging with National Guardsman during a flood. He liked the guys, and they talked to him and recruited him. And when we talked over the idea of enlisting in the Guard, I said, this is hard, because I'm a peace activist, and that's the way Sherwood and my other two sons were raised. But he kept saying, "Mom, don't worry, the National Guard doesn't go to foreign wars. They're just here for floods and fires and disasters and riots. The worst thing that could happen is I'd have to arrest you." He also said that no Pennsylvania National Guard had been lost in combat since 1945. And he was the first.

Was Sherwood a practicing Christian?

He belonged to the Methodist Church up there [in Wilkes-Barre]. He wasn't a big attender, but he was married by a Methodist clergywoman, and whenever he was home, he went to the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, our family church.

That's the church you currently attend?

I came home today [from Texas] and rather than delaying my flight til later today, I came home last night so that I could attend church [there] this morning, because I really needed to be back at the well. And I realized how much I stand in the sanctuary of that church with everything I do. The courage it gives, the comfort it gives-I'm so grateful for my church community, and for the things I've learned from them, from the way we stand with each other and help each other and try to be God's people.

My son's oath
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  • Did Sherwood see his service in Iraq as a matter of God's will?

    No, I think what he saw was in some sense-he had taken an oath. And for Sherwood, the taking of an oath was extraordinarily serious. And we talked to him about it, and he said, "I took an oath before God" [in joining the National Guard].

    So fidelity to that promise was what made him willing to go to Iraq, even though that was not what he intended to do when he joined?

    Exactly. He knew how we felt. We never argued; we didn't talk politics with him. We couldn't burden him. He told us he had to keep a clear mind and do the job that he had to do and come home safely. And he wasn't anxious to go, but he was a big man [here, her voice breaks], and he had a job he was going to do, and he was going to try to do it as best as he could. And we promised him that we would look after his family. And we would stand with him.

    How old is his child?

    He's now 10.

    How did this tragedy in your life affect your founding of Gold Star Families for Peace?

    Right after Sherwood was deployed, which was January '04, I learned of the organization called Military Families Speak Out, which is an organization of 2,500 families with loved ones in Iraq or who have served in Iraq. I contacted them, and they are amazing people. Nancy Lessing and Charlie Richardson are parents of a young military man who has since come and gone [on his tour of duty in Iraq] and come home alive. But they with others started this organization, and they are really the best organizing people I've ever known. And this organization has grown and grown, and it turned out that others who have lost people in Iraq have become attached to Military Families Speak Out.

    And we met these others: Lyla Lipscomb, Cindy Sheehan, Bill Mitchell, Sue Neiderer, Jane Bright. And through a lot of activities we were doing in the fall, we were seeing each other at various demonstrations and speeches, and before Christmas, Cindy said she thought it would be a good idea to have an organization of Gold Star Families, and we came up with the name Gold Star Families for Peace.

    Eveything is done on the move. We started e-mailing each other, we set up a web site, and Cindy' sister took over the website. And there was no formality to it; it was a collection of people who were united in grief and commitment. And other people who had lost their kids joined up with us, and we made it open, so that people who had lost children in other wars could be part of it too. So we have a couple of Vietnam folks, and one World War II.

    The Scripture that sustains me
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