Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Empty Chair at the Table


Philadelphia - The old stone house in the close-knit Mount Airy neighborhood that Sherwood Baker grew up in had for many years been the scene of rollicking holiday gatherings.

“We would have big, ridiculous dinners,” said his mom, Celeste Zappala. She chuckled. “They weren’t formal, believe me. The dishes wouldn’t match and we’d never have enough silverware. But it was great fun.”

Sherwood, a big man at 6-4 and about 250 pounds, would be there with his wife, Debra, and son, J.D., his two brothers, and sometimes his dad, even though he is divorced from Ms. Zappala. Others would be there, as well. “We’d look for stray people,” Ms. Zappala said, “somebody who didn’t have someone to be with. We could always fit more people around the table. ”

The gatherings are more subdued now. Ms. Zappala can still remember almost every detail of the April evening in 2004 when the man in the dress uniform with the medals on his chest showed up on her porch with the bad news. “He had a notebook in his hand,” she said. “I could see him very clearly even though it was dark and kind of raining. So I came out on the porch and I looked at him. And I knew, but I didn’t want to know.”

Sgt. Sherwood Baker of the Pennsylvania National Guard had been in Baghdad only six weeks when he was killed. The bitter irony that will always surround his death was the fact that he was helping to provide security for the Iraq Survey Group, which was hunting for the weapons of mass destruction. He died on April 26, 2004, in an explosion at a factory that was being inspected.

Grief is magnified during the holidays, and with the toll in Iraq steadily mounting, there are now thousands of families across the U.S. who are faced, like Sergeant Baker’s relatives, with an awful empty space at their Thanksgiving tables. Ms. Zappala pulled out photos of Sherwood and the rest of the family laughing it up at holiday parties, and spoke of the ferocious grief that has since gripped everyone. “We won’t be the same now,” she said. “We’re totally different people than we started out to be.”

One of the family’s last Christmas presents for Sergeant Baker was a global positioning device. “He was told that he had to have one,” said Ms. Zappala, “but the Army wouldn’t buy it for him. So we got him one. That was our last Christmas together, 2003. We were all trying to be happy but each of us was frightened and worried about what was going to happen to him.”

Sergeant Baker’s story, for the most part, was typical. He was a social worker who joined the National Guard in 1997 in part for civic reasons, but also because he needed help paying off his college loans. “It was extra money,” his mother said.

What was unusual was that Ms. Zappala was a longtime peace and social justice activist. She opposed the Iraq war from the very beginning, and the last thing in the world that she wanted was for her son to be in it. Sergeant Baker told her not to worry, that no one from the Pennsylvania National Guard had been killed in combat since World War II. But she worried. And when it was clear that Sergeant Baker would be sent to Iraq, she looked for a way out. “I told him, ‘If you don’t want to do this, I’ll take you to Canada,’” she said. “But he said, ‘No, I made an oath before God. And besides, they would court-martial me. I’ll just go. I’ll do it and I’ll come home.’ ”

Ms. Zappala remains opposed to the war and is an active member of the antiwar group Military Families Speak Out. There’s a sign on her porch that says, “War is Not the Answer.” But she’s found that there’s no comfort to be drawn from her protests, however strongly she believes in them.

“Where’s the comfort in being right?” she asked. “Everything we said was right. Sherwood died looking for the weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist. All the nonsense about the Al Qaeda connections and Sept. 11th. They were all lies. It was all wrong. But none of that brings Sherwood back to the table.”

While standing on the porch where she got the terrible news about her son, Ms. Zappala spoke of the many other families that have lost children, or other close relatives, to the war. “I’m very aware that it didn’t just happen to us,” she said. “For everybody, it’s the same horrible loss. It’s the same tragedy. It doesn’t make any difference whether someone was for or against the war. We’ve met families who were very supportive of the war and we were crying with them. The pain is the same.”