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'Death was a Waste': She Hates the War That Killed Her Son
Published on Thursday, April 29, 2004 by the Philadelphia Daily News
'Death was a Waste'
She Hates the War That Killed Her Son
by Jill Porter

FOR US, it's the enigma, the irony, the question that begs an answer:

How is it that the son of anti-war social activists who grew up marching on Washington wound up in a military unit in Iraq?

But the question that haunts his family is far more profound, singed on their souls by tears of grief:

Why are good young men like their son and brother dying in an unjust war - for nothing?

"My son went over there based on a bunch of lies," Al Zappala sobbed yesterday.

"I'm not going to be like the parents who think there was some meaning to his death - there wasn't," he said.

"It was a waste."

Sgt. Sherwood Baker, 30, was one of two soldiers killed in a building explosion in Baghdad on Monday, the first member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard to die in combat since 1945.

And yesterday, in a cozy Mount Airy home, his family wept and spoke about this "extraordinarily fine young man and father" and the war that ended his life.

By the time Sherwood Baker became their foster son as a toddler, he'd already been affected by personal irresponsibility - the biological parents who couldn't care for him, the previous foster parents who'd left him to languish in a playpen.

He was a wary, aloof child at first, said Celeste Zappala, sitting on the sofa next to her former husband and their two sons.

But over time, the nurturing he got from his new family turned him into an outgoing, loving man who was very serious about living up to his own responsibilities.

He abandoned his plans to become a schoolteacher because he had a child by the time he graduated King's College in Wilkes-Barre and couldn't afford to spend time getting his student-teacher credentials.

He was devoted to his son, James-Dante Raphael Baker, now 9, and worked constantly to provide for his struggling family.

"He worked lots of jobs," said Celeste, 57, director of the Mayor's Commission on Services to the Aging.

"He'd never sleep because he was always working."

The promise of money to pay off his college loans and the opportunity to help his community lured him to join the Army National Guard, where he was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 109th Field Artillery in Wilkes-Barre.

And then war broke out.

He'd listen when his family talked about it - his brother, Dante, 28, and Dante's wife, Selma, were arrested in a demonstration in San Francisco last year, but he didn't express his own opinion.

"He never said either way," said his father, Al, 64, who lives in South Philadelphia.

"I'd talk to him. He just didn't respond."

When Baker's unit was activated for Iraq, he didn't want to go, Celeste said. But he was honor-bound by his sense of responsibility - to the men in his unit and to the commitment he'd made when he joined.

"I said, 'Should I take you to Canada?' " said Celeste, recalling her Vietnam-era experience of helping military defectors escape the country.

"He said, 'No, I'll just be court-martialed. I'm going to go do this and come home.' "

The house on West Mount Airy Avenue where Celeste has lived for 31 years has an inviting lived-in comfort. Friends dropped by all day to express their sympathy.

There's a sign in the window that says "Peace is Patriotic" and a book on the coffee table by peace activist William Sloan Coffin Jr.

In one of Sher's recent e-mails, Celeste said, he asked for food and water. It appalled his family that soldiers were being sent into combat without the provisions to sustain them.

But on Saturday, his brother Raphael, 25, sent a huge package filled with tuna fish, peanut butter, coffee.

On Monday, Celeste convinced herself to calm down and stop the incessant worrying that had made her "so upset, so nuts" since Sher had left.

And on Monday, Sherwood's wife, Debra, waited in their Wilkes-Barre home for his daily phone call.

"She waited until midnight," Al said, weeping.

An Army major showed up at the door instead.

Losing a child under any circumstances is heartbreaking.

There's a certain comfort if you believe he died for a noble purpose - and an unbearable emptiness if you believe he died for no good reason.

All Sherwood Baker's family can do now is hope that their voices somehow are heard - that people "shut off reality TV and tune into reality," Celeste said.

"I don't say I know the answer, but this policy is horribly wrong."

Copyright 1996-2004 Knight Ridder.


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