Was it Worth it? A vigil to commemorate America’s 2000th death in Iraq. (article © 2005)

Part of the Philadelphia City Paper article series on Philadelphian causalities of the War in Iraq.  Originally published in the November 10th-16th, 2005 issue, online version available here.  — CS 14.06.2008

On Saturday, Oct. 22, Staff Sgt. George Alexander, 34, of Clanton, Ala., died from wounds inflicted by a bomb in the insurgent stronghold of Samarra, and became the 2,000th uniformed American death in Iraq.

The announcement of his death was formally released by the Department of Defense three days later. At 5 p.m. the next evening, a candlelight vigil was held at City Hall by Philadelphia members of the peace organizations Gold Star Families for Peace (GSFP), Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), Veterans for Peace (VFP), the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the Brandywine Peace Community and the Shalom Center.

To the somber bellow of a gong, the names of all 2,000 soldiers, interspersed with the names of several hundred Iraqi civilians, were recited aloud. Then, Robert M. Smith of the Brandywine Peace Community announced that the 104 Pennsylvania casualties make our state the third hardest hit in the nation after California (212) and Texas (180), according to the online Iraq Coalition Casualties project (icasualties.org).

“We have gathered here to memorialize each and every one of these deaths,” proclaimed Smith. “We are here to tell our Congress: not one more death, not one more dollar!”

Organizers presented reporters with two poster-boards, one detailing the statistical horrors of the ongoing Iraq war, the other a single-page statement for U.S. Sens. Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum that read, “Each of these [2000 KIAs] represents dashed hopes and possibilities, the loss of family and the unremitting pain of permanent separation. This is certainly and overwhelmingly the case for the people of Iraq who have suffered decades of brutal dictatorship, war, devastating economic sanctions and now, a war of occupation supported by your and other members of the Senate and the House of Representatives. We demand: an end to the funding of this war, that all U.S. military bases in Iraq be closed, and that the troops be brought home now!”

The assembly then queued into a procession and, to the beat of the gong, marched to the nearby Widener Building. Once there, the assembly prepared to enter and hand Santorum the posters. Celeste Zappala of Chestnut Hill is a co-founder of GSFP whose son Sherwood “Sher” Baker was killed in Iraq over a year ago [News, “Was It Worth It?” Christopher Schwartz, Oct. 6, 2005]. She phoned the senator’s office earlier to notify them of the vigil’s intentions, yet two guards abruptly began to close the building’s tall iron gates. Still, Zappala was able to slip in along with five others: her ex-husband Al Zappala; his wife, Joan Kosloff; John Grant, president of the local chapter of VFP and an IVAW board member; Pat Gunn, whose Iraq war vet son suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and yet has not received any medical benefits from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA); and this reporter.

Soon, Celeste Zappala was knocking the door of Santorum’s empty office. Everyone had already left except a staff assistant and Marcus Mitchell, the senator’s director of community and economic development. Mitchell invited us into a conference room and listened to what the protestors had to say.

They recounted many horrors, physical and psychological. There are many young men and women, hailed as heroes by the presidential administration, who are “rattled,” deeply despondent, even suicidal. These are the silent, living casualties of the war, they said.

They cited the tragedy of Marine Lance Cpl. Jeffrey Lucey, from Massachusetts, who returned home calling himself a “murderer” for the terrible things he said he and his fellow troops had done in Iraq. Then, one day, his father came home to find Lucey with a garden hose wrapped around his neck, dangling from the cellar ceiling. Zappala and Gunn sobbed.

Grant, who served in Vietnam, said, “When you look back, our leaders knew Vietnam was futile as early as ’67, ’68, and yet they sent tens of thousands of young men to die anyway, right into the ’70s.

“We are at that point in this war. Today, like back then, a lot of vets are furious, but they’re wrecked and torn inside, left spinning in the wind. They don’t make much of a political fuss because they don’t want any more conflict; they just want to disappear. But believe me, this war is creating a lot of very damaged people.”

Gunn then explained, “There are two really important issues here: the soldiers killed and those injured who are not supported and not able to cope. Our society is made up of families, and we need to care for them, but we’re not doing that. We’re sending our children to a horrific war with no end in sight. They’re going to grow up and lead this country, but how are they going to do that without their minds working properly?”

They called for expanding the budget of the VA (which President Bush has repeatedly slashed since the start of the war), creating an effective job-training program for vets, and following through with the benefits packages promised to the soldiers but rarely delivered.

Celeste Zappala said her son joined the Guard because the recruiter promised they would pay off his college loans. He served for seven years, right up to his death, and the loans were never paid. “Part of the VA’s problem is the system’s slowness and its unnavigability,” she said. “There should be rapid service. Really treat these people as heroes, don’t just say they are. There is a sacred covenant between the soldier and the government. It’s unconscionable how this administration just says, “We’ll tell you whatever we want to get you to sign up, then send you there, make you risk your life, and then we don’t have to help you when you return.’ This is a callous, casual use of human lives!”

Most of all, they want a serious change in America’s leadership.

“You’re probably not old enough to remember Watergate, but we do,” Celeste said to Mitchell. “There was a point where the Senate decided Nixon was not capable of leading this country. This current administration is imploding. Members of the cabinet are being indicted. The Senate during Watergate realized that their duty was to this nation, irregardless of their individual political affiliations, and they stood up to do what was right. That needs to happen now.”

Al Zappala recalled that he and Celeste actually met Santorum a year before, during a similar peace demonstration. He said he was struck by how seriously Santorum seemed to take their cause. Since then, he’s traveled all across the country and, “met lots of politicians and their aides. I’ve found that the Democrats are actually very smug. They say they’re against the war, but don’t do anything. Republicans, however, are always very, deeply respectful of us. We’re nonpartisan. This isn’t Democrat versus Republican. Our nation is at a historical moment right now. If Santorum steps up and does what is right, history will look upon him very favorably.”

“I know Santorum is hearing a voice coming from the Bush administration,” added Celeste, “but there are other voices to listen to. Please tell him. Please.”

Hearing the pleas, Mitchell softly said, “I will carry your message to the senator.”

It was nearly 7 p.m. when Mitchell led the contingent out of the building, and wished them well. The rest of the vigil has long since moved on to the Federal Building, having attempted to reach Specter, but the immense building was already shut down and locked up.

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