Breaking Their Silence

Families of U.S. troops have long adhered to a clan code that prohibits speaking out against a war. Now some are going public over Iraq.

By Elizabeth Mehren

Los Angeles Times

October 6, 2004

PHILADELPHIA — In Love Plaza, about 75 people mingled in bright sunshine, chatting noisily while one speaker after another droned on at a campaign rally. Vendors hawked T-shirts, and children frolicked in a fountain opposite ornate City Hall.

Then Celeste Zappala stepped onstage. Standing between columns of red, white and blue balloons, she held up the Purple Heart awarded posthumously to her oldest son. The plaza fell silent.

In calm, measured tones, Zappala talked about her opposition to the war in Iraq. She spoke with pride and tenderness about her son, Sherwood Baker, who was killed in April in Baghdad.

"Sherwood was a patriot," Zappala said. "He was brave and faithful and loyal. He believed in America, and he believed in democracy. And I made an oath to him not to be quiet, not to be cynical in my grief."

Before her son left for Iraq early this year, Zappala, 57, joined a group of military families that supports the troops but opposes the war. Today, Military Familie s Speak Out has more than 1,700 member families across the country who participate in protests, appear on radio and television and confront public officials. By telling stories about their loved ones, they hope to sway hearts and minds and help bring an end to the war.

At Love Plaza, after Zappala finished a 15-minute speech that left many in the audience wiping their eyes, an Army veteran from the Vietnam era approached her.

"For those of us who have been in the service, I wish more parents would speak out," said Steve McCarter of Glenside, Pa. "This shows that not everyone connected to the military is united behind this war."

For centuries, soldiers have been trained to think as a group. With its uniforms and strict regulations, military culture fostered an us-versus-them mentality. The powerful sense of solidarity applied by extension to close family members. In military households, it was understood that speaking out violated the code of the clan and carried consequences.

T hough numerous groups of military personnel and their families support the Iraq war, MFSO is the only organization formed by military families who are against it.

The organized expression of dissent is "a new and significant development," said Jeremi Suri, a University of Wisconsin history professor who is an expert on antiwar movements.

It is a big change from the 1960s and '70s, when opposition to the Vietnam War was lumped in with contempt for the military establishment. "In the past, groups related to soldiers have felt uncomfortable" criticizing a war, Suri said.

But many parents of today's young troops were raised in an era of protest, "and no matter how quiescent they may have been later on, this has revived it," said Roland L. Guyotte, another authority on antiwar movements and a history professor at the University of Minnesota.

The same parents, Guyotte said, have seen "the emergence of influence among the 9/11 families," relatives of victims of the terrorist attacks w ho successfully pushed for investigations and compensation.

Military Families Speak Out took root almost two years ago, before the U.S. invaded Iraq. Two Boston labor organizers, Charley Richardson and his wife, Nancy Lessin, grew concerned about what they saw as the real motivation for the war. And they wanted to put a face to the troops who would be risking their lives.

So they made a poster with a picture of their son, a Marine who had served in Kosovo and Afghanistan. The caption read: "This is our son Joe. Please don't send him to war for oil." When Richardson and Lessin took the poster to antiwar rallies and other political events, it caught the attention of military families troubled by the war.

Last fall, Lessin, 55, and Richardson, 51, launched MFSO, contacting everyone on their burgeoning e-mail list. Within 24 hours, about 200 military spouses, parents, siblings and grandparents had signed up for an organization with no dues, no bylaws, no board of directors and a headquarte rs at the founders' kitchen table.

As the organization has grown, Lessin and Richardson have hired a part-time media consultant in Washington to help coordinate requests for appearances by members. The group relies on donations for its operating expenses.

MFSO also mobilizes protests, such as one by parents who went to the White House in April to deliver a package of letters to President Bush. Most had lost children in Iraq. A White House guard would not accept the letters.

Members find the organization through chat rooms and Internet searches, word of mouth and by hearing MFSO speakers at public gatherings. New York lawyer Madelaine Strauss, 51, said she was referred to MFSO when she contacted a Vietnam-era antiwar group.

While her nephew was serving with the Marines in Ramadi, in Iraq's Sunni Triangle region, Strauss said: "I wanted to reach out to someone who understood what my family and I were going through. But I was also looking for a way to voice my opposition to this w ar, which I am ashamed to say I was initially in favor of."

Strauss said she changed her mind "once I realized we were operating under false assumptions, and that the intelligence was bad." Her 19-year-old nephew came home last weekend.

No one at the Pentagon would comment about MFSO. Spokeswoman Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke said she was "unaware of its activities."

The same weekend that Zappala captivated the audience at Love Plaza, three MFSO mothers waited to speak to two dozen antiwar activists at a potluck supper in a Lutheran church on the other side of Philadelphia. One has a son fighting in Iraq; one, a son who returned; and one, a son who was killed.

They believe U.S. soldiers were sent to Iraq to fight for a political agenda, not to defend America. The three, from suburban New Jersey, also maintain that troops have not been properly equipped for their mission, right down to a lack of toiletries.

One of the mothers, Mildred McHugh, said she felt the war was wrong when its stated purpose — to stop Saddam Hussein from using weapons of mass destruction — was later shown to be false because no such weapons were found. But with a son in the Army, she kept her feelings to herself, fearing she might cause trouble.

When her son Steve was sent to Iraq six months ago, McHugh found her voice: "I was just furious about him going to a war based on lies. I thought, how much worse could it be for him?"

Besides, she said, "if anything should happen to my son, I will know I did everything I possibly could to protect him. And if I do not save my own son, maybe I can bring someone else's son home."

She typed the phrase "military families" into a Web search, and with no background in social activism, the 44-year-old pharmaceutical researcher joined MFSO. She wrote letters, appeared on radio call-in shows and pestered senators into seeing her. McHugh said military families carried credibility that public officials found hard to ignore.

"In a way, we have a more powerful voice because we are not radicals or career peace activists," McHugh said. "When we speak out, we let people know that it is at risk to our own children. We let people know that our sons and daughters are in Iraq, or that they have died there. It makes it harder to dismiss us as nut-cakes."

She said her son — a 22-year-old Army infantry private in Samarra, north of Baghdad — told her he was proud of the stand she had taken. But, McHugh said, "he is glad I use my maiden name."

Patt Gunn, 50, is a Navy veteran. She worked as a military recruiter and volunteers at the local USO office. Gunn said one of her biggest concerns was that the troops were not well trained for their jobs in Iraq, and that many lacked safety equipment. Although she comes from a military family — her father was also in the Navy — Gunn does not regard joining MFSO as crossing some invisible line of loyalty.

"My fight is with the current administration," she said. "I am al ways very careful. I never say anything against a soldier. The military is doing their job. They took an oath, just like I did, and they are absolutely following orders. It's just the wrong orders."

Gunn's 25-year-old triplet sons all joined the armed forces, but only one was sent to Iraq. Last November, Jason Gunn was badly injured in a car bombing in Baghdad. He was sent home to recover, then sent back to Iraq. The Army reassigned him to Germany last month.

As she rose to speak to the activists, the third mother, Sue Niederer, 55, pulled out a photograph of her son Seth Dvorin. The 24-year-old Army lieutenant died Feb. 3 in a bombing south of Baghdad.

"My son is home now," Niederer said. "Six feet under."

The audience gasped.

Across the country, in Escondido, Fernando Suarez del Solar also buried his son. Lance Cpl. Jesus Alberto Suarez del Solar Navarro was 20 years old when he stepped on an American cluster bomb near Baghdad on March 27, 2003.

Struggling to make sense of his son's death, Suarez del Solar quit his jobs delivering newspapers and working at a 7-Eleven and started an antiwar group for young Latinos.

Suarez del Solar, who spoke almost no English, called his organization Guerrero Azteca. He later merged the group with MFSO, bringing dozens of Latino families into the organization. He said he had no income, scraping by on donations.

He taught himself English and began making speeches to encourage young people to stay in school rather than join the military. At dozens of conferences and visits to more than 200 high schools, Suarez del Solar has described how his son joined the Marines because he thought it would help him get a job fighting illegal drug traffickers when he got out.

"I speak against the system," said Suarez del Solar, 48, who served in the Mexican army. "But I support the troops. I support the boys and the girls inside the military. Nobody touches me, nobody questions me because I tell the real story, my son's stor y."

Although their son ended up going to Iraq, Charley Richardson and Nancy Lessin were more fortunate. Joe Richardson, 26, returned safely after six months.

The founders acknowledge there is no way to measure MFSO's effectiveness. But Richardson said the organization had a "huge influence" because it separated the question of support for the troops from support for the war.

In addition, he said, "we have reached people who have never spoken out before."

"For them, it is a big change. I also think we have given some space for politicians to speak out — praising the work of the soldiers, but criticizing the war."

The couple's efforts have been criticized and they have received death threats. They have been labeled unpatriotic, a charge other MFSO members say they have heard as well.

"I think our definition of patriotic is what are you doing to make your country a better country," Lessin said. "We think we are doing the most patriotic thing we could do in a situation where our leadership has taken us into a war that should never have happened."

Back at Love Plaza, Celeste Zappala told the crowd about the boy she adopted when he was 13 months old. Sherwood Baker grew up to become a part-time disc jockey and a caseworker for mentally retarded adults. He joined the National Guard in 1997 after watching troops do flood-control work.

Zappala, director of the Philadelphia Council on Aging, said her son saw the Guard as "another way of helping out" his community. He assured her that Guardsmen did not go to war.

Baker, 30, was killed in a munitions explosion in Baghdad while providing security for an Army unit seeking weapons of mass destruction. He became the first wartime fatality in the Pennsylvania National Guard since 1945. His father, Alfred Zappala, 64, who served in the Reserves and for 32 years worked for the Defense Department, is also active in MFSO. Alfred Zappala traveled to a National Guard convention in Las Vegas last month to rebu t remarks about the war delivered there by Bush.

After the Philadelphia rally, Celeste Zappala brushed a strand of gray-blond hair from her face and fingered an album of family photographs that she often brings with her.

"I think that bearing witness is possibly the most important way you can move people's hearts," she said. "People pay attention to me when I tell Sherwood's story. How can they turn away?"