Philadelphia mother's fight for peace continues

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Peace activist Celeste Zappala, whose son was killed in Iraq, in her West Mount Airy home.

IN FIVE YEARS, she's rarely missed a protest.

On the last Friday of each month, Celeste Zappala joins like-minded others on a Center City street corner to wave signs that urge drivers to "Honk for Peace" and to show their opposition to the war in Iraq.

Sometimes there are as few as two people there. There are never more than 20.

But someone is always there.

"It's a small event, and it may not have a lot of impact, but in my mind, it's important to be faithful to things you believe in," said Zappala, 63, of Mount Airy.

"We live in hope. Sometimes you say, 'I can't possibly do anything. I'm not going to face this anymore,' but that's being paralyzed and that, to me, seems to break faith."

Today marks the formal end of U.S. combat missions in Iraq. According to U.S. officials, the fewer than 50,000 troops remaining there will focus on training and assume a background role.

But for Zappala and the folks who join her every month at Broad and Arch streets, the fight is far from over. They'll be there, she said, until every troop comes home.

"It's not joyfully that I can say the war is over, because it isn't. The consequences will go on forever," said Zappala, who is retired from a job in city government. "They've changed the name, but our people are still in danger and there are still going to be people injured or dying."

She does it because it's what she believes, what she's always believed, since way back in the 1960s when she joined protests against the Vietnam War. She does it for her son, a National Guardsman who died fighting a war that his mother opposed from the start.

In April 2004, Zappala's son Sgt. Sherwood Baker was on patrol in Baghdad when he was killed after a suspected chemical warehouse exploded. Baker was 30 years old, the first Pennsylvania National Guard soldier to die in Iraq. To date, more than 4,400 troops have been killed.

"It's very hard to think that even with all of our very best efforts, Sherwood does not come home," she said. "There's not a day that I don't miss him. . . . I don't claim any special grief. I know others have lost their people and I know they feel the same way whether they supported the war or they didn't."

The hourlong monthly vigils are held during Friday rush hour because the war began on a Thursday, Zappala said, and wouldn't it have been wonderful if it had been over in a day? Bad weather doesn't keep the protesters away, nor do personal problems or illness.

"It's the least I can do," Zappala said.

Zappala always wears a sign that bears an image of her son and the words "We Mourn." She waves a handwritten "Honk for Peace" sign.

In the early years of the vigil, she said, she and the others were targets of angry shouts or obscene gestures.

These days, she said, the group gets the asked-for car horns, and pedestrians who walk by will say "honk" aloud. The responses buoy the faithful.

"Every month, I pray I'm not the only one," Zappala said, "and somebody always always does show up."