"This Was My Child"

Mt. Airy resident and longtime peace activist Celeste Zappala lost her son in Iraq last year. And she's not about to let the Bush administration forget it.

By Cassidy Hartmann
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 7, 2005

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It started out as a thin strip of land. No wider than 10 feet. Just enough space to fit a small tent off the gravel road. The folding chairs had come in handy, providing much-needed rest for the weary protesters who'd been spending most of their days standing, talking and praying, in temperatures approaching 100 degrees. Hot breezes swept through the camp, muffling cell phone interviews and drying fresh sweat and tears. The media showed up in full force.

But no sign of the president.

Celeste Zappala arrived he evening of Aug. 9 to find Cindy Sheehan and some 10 campers and other supporters gathered closely at the roadside. Homemade banners hung from the fences and trees. The group was strictly confined to a meager slice of public land, and was told if the wheels of their vehicles touched the only road leading to Bush's ranch, they would be towed.

"The sheriffs were very intensely watching where we were putting our cars and if our tents were in the road," says Zappala. "There was a lot of discussion of what was public vs. private."

White crosses bearing the names of fallen soldiers were erected on an adjacent stretch of road. Several days later they'd be plowed down by an angry neighbor in a pickup truck. But while Zappala was there they stood, ghostly and firm.

A few days earlier Bush had sent two senior advisers out in a black SUV to meet with Sheehan. They gave her explanations-the same ones Bush spouts regularly on the nightly news-but not the ones she wanted to hear. "I couldn't believe these smart men were actually saying these things to me," Sheehan told Zappala.

To the advisers, Sheehan said: "I may be a grieving mother, but I'm not stupid."

That first night Zappala slept beside Sheehan in a flimsy blue tent. In more ways than one, they were unprepared for the impending storm.

"We had terrible thunderstorms and lightning," remembers Zappala. "And I was lying there thinking, 'It would be pretty ironic if this were the end of me, you know? Out on a Crawford road.'"

The brutal weather was something new, but Celeste Zappala had been here before. More than 30 years ago she'd helped organize demonstrations against the Vietnam War. She'd been trained in nonviolent protesting, and knew how to keep the situation under control.

"I saw my job partially as trying to explain, to help people understand how you don't become angry. It was a group of people brand-new to a political situation, to a protest situation. So what I tried to do is negotiate. I made friends with the policemen who were guarding, and I tried to assist in taking care of the camp."

Sheehan was besieged by a steady stream of interviewers, so Zappala picked up the slack wherever she could. Most people had dropped everything to be there, and were ill-equipped to handle the elements or the emotional strain. She worked to keep everyone calm and the group's message consistent.

By Friday a group of counterprotesters had arrived. They established themselves across the road from Camp Casey, which, unfortunately for the newcomers, turned out to be the sunny side. Zappala was quick to make sure they had enough water.

"They'd come unprepared. It was really hot, high 90s, and it's an intense, drying sun. You get dehydrated quickly, and some of those people were older. A couple of the women didn't look particularly hearty. So an hour on the side of the road was a lot."

She approached the first woman she saw, eager to hear her perspective. The woman had a son in the service but hadn't lost anyone in the war.

"She was all worked up. I talked with her and tried to point out how many things I agree with her on. We're all about supporting the troops. That's why we're here. But she was angry. She had a point she was going to make."

Other run-ins were considerably more positive. Sue Niederer, a Princeton resident and founding member of Gold Star Families who lost her son Seth in February of last year, had a long discussion with another counterprotester.

"They had a good talk, and they hugged each other, and he went back to his bus," says Zappala. "Our goal was to win people over, and I know there are people who disagree with me, but maybe if we dialogue there's some way to move closer to a common ground."

When it comes to grieving families, Zappala has always been understanding toward all sides. "Nobody has a monopoly on grief," she says, adding that people who've lost children in Iraq and support the war have an equally valid perspective.

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