"If there was ever a time to say the emperor has no clothes, by God it's now," says Celeste Zappala.
Zappala is part of one of three traveling groups calling themselves the Bring Them Home Now bus tour, which stopped in Pittsburgh Sept. 11 to create a temporary Pittsburgh version of the protest camp through which Cindy Sheehan dogged George W. Bush throughout his five-week vacation in Crawford, Texas. Sheehan, mother of a soldier killed in the Iraq War, had been requesting a meeting with the president to discuss his reasons for the war -- and for her son's death. She flew to Pittsburgh separately but was among those speaking to the crowd of several hundred who attended the rally on Schenley Park's Flagstaff Hill.
The Pittsburgh camp and candlelight procession through Oakland included testimony from Iraq War veterans and families of the war dead amid crosses, stars of David, crescents and other tombstones representing their sacrifice.
Zappala, of Philadelphia, is one of the co-founders (along with Sheehan) of Gold Star Families for Peace. Her son, Sherwood Baker, a member of the Pennsylvania National Guard, was killed in Iraq at age 30 in April 2004.
Not that she was ever convinced the Iraq War was justified. "I was opposed to the war before it happened," she says. "I don't think it should be the first resort. Myself and three quarters of the rest of the globe were out protesting the coming of the war." She says she prayed that it would be over before it involved her son.
According to Zappala, Sherwood Baker was killed in his sixth week as a sergeant guarding the Iraq Survey Group, which was looking for WMDs -- something now even the Bush administration admits were nonexistent. "They were continuing to search buildings," Zappala says. "There was an explosion. My son was in a Humvee outside the building. He stood up to see what was going on and he was hit by debris.
"I got on my knees next to his coffin and vowed to him, 'I will not be quiet.'"
Her son had been a social worker for adults with mental retardation in Luzerne County, as well as a Wilkes-Barre deejay and musician and the father of a child, now 10.
"We all have to take a part in this," Zappala says of her efforts to speak out against the war. "We can't just blindly think the administration is going to make good decisions and take care of us. Obviously they don't," she adds, pointing to the federal government's handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The Bring Them Home Now Tour also rallied on Sept. 12 in front of the Oakland military recruiting station that has been the focus of pickets by the Pittsburgh Organizing Group. The Raging Grannies, an anti-war choral group of mostly white-haired women, had intended to attempt to enlist during this rally but found the recruiting station closed once again.
Hart Viges of Austin, Texas, was among those testifying on Sept. 12. His previous tour was with the Army in the Iraq War.
"In Iraq, I had a chance to fire on a human being and I did not," says Viges. It was a young man with a rocket-propelled grenade, running away from him. "The look on his face was not the big monster, the boogeyman we'd been led to believe." He says he never did fire a shot while in Iraq, and eventually applied for Conscientious Objector status after returning to the States. He received it in December 2004.
"I can't let it go," he says of his move to become a CO even after leaving Iraq. "It wasn't just something I used to get out of the Army. It was now who I was."
Zappala says she too was transformed by the loss of her son in a way that will not leave her.
"I was not just some lady from Philadelphia who can't get over her grief," she says. "There's so many people speaking out. Maybe at some point that becomes the critical mass. I tell the story of my son. That's what everybody [on the tour] does. There's something real honest about that. I just try to tell people what the human cost is. You never know what moves people to action."