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For Some, a Loss in Iraq Turns Into Antiwar Activism

Gold Star Families Band Together to 'Make People Care'

By Evelyn Nieves
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2005; Page A03

VACAVILLE, Calif. -- Five minutes after President Bush began his State of the Union address, Cindy Sheehan clicked off her television set.

She would read the transcript, watch the salute to the parents of a Marine killed in Fallujah, chew over such words as "ultimate sacrifice" and "fight against tyranny" -- the next morning.

But that night, live, in her living room, so close to her son's photos and medals on the foyer wall -- no. It was too much to hear the cheering for the man who had sent her son to Iraq on the premise that Saddam Hussein stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. Casey Sheehan, a former Eagle Scout and altar boy who had joined the Army hoping to serve as a chaplain's assistant, was killed at age 24 in a war he wasn't sure why he was fighting. And more soldiers like him were dying every day. Where was the outrage?

Cindy Sheehan found it where she always does: in other families who have lost a loved one in a war they neither believe in nor want to believe will continue, without end, with the nation's acquiescence.

They call themselves Gold Star Families for Peace. Organized less than two months ago, it is part support group and part activist organization, with members united by grief and the belief that their loved ones died in a war that did not have to happen. They represent a small percentage of the families that have lost someone in Iraq -- 50 families out of more than 1,450.

The fallen soldiers' obituaries indicate that many of their families continue to support the war. But the Gold Star Families say they support the soldiers because their mission is to speak out to help bring them home and minimize the human cost of the war.

They include Bill Mitchell of Atascadero, Calif., who lost his son, Mike, 25, in the same April 4 ambush that killed Casey Sheehan, and who also was unable to watch Bush's speech. And Celeste Zappala of Philadelphia, whose eldest son, Sherwood Baker, 30, a National Guardsman, was killed while on the search for weapons of mass destruction. She watched Bush's speech with the sound turned down, "trying to discern some truth amidst the choreography of clapping and fawning." Other Gold Star Families shared the same knot in their stomachs, the same sense of stunned disbelief.

They worry that as the war verges on entering its third year, the public seems to be losing interest in it. When Sheehan tells people she lost a son in the war, she said, she is sometimes asked, "Which war?"

"It's like the American public can listen to the war news for five minutes, and then they can hear about Michael Jackson," she said. "We're trying really hard to bring it to the forefront, to make people care about what's going on there."

The families stumbled upon one another through the Internet and through Military Families Speak Out, an antiwar group for families with loved ones serving in Iraq. With no outreach and little publicity, Gold Star Families for Peace -- the name is a variation on American Gold Star Mothers, a group for mothers of slain soldiers that dates from the 1920s -- gets inquiries from two or three families nearly every day, Sheehan said.

They are regular people: teachers, civil servants, stay-at-home moms and hardware-salesman dads. Most are not used to political protests or speechmaking. Their loved ones -- sons, mostly -- had joined the military because they wanted to, usually out of a sense of duty.

Patrick McCaffrey, who managed an auto shop in Palo Alto, Calif., joined the National Guard after Sept. 11, 2001.

"He wanted to protect the homeland from terrorism," said Nadia McCaffrey of Tracy, Calif., Her only child, 34 years old and with a wife and two children, never dreamed he would be sent abroad to fight. "He would never have signed up if he thought that was a possibility," McCaffrey said. "His family was too important to him."

Gold Star Families do speaking engagements or grant interviews on a moment's notice, though they know the risks. Already, some people have written them off as grieving mothers -- most Gold Star members are mothers -- whose judgment has been clouded by emotion. They also know that many military families do not share their views. The couple whom Bush honored during his State of the Union address, Janet and Bill Norwood of Pflugerville, Tex., had written to Bush to express continuing support for the war after their son, a Marine sergeant, was killed last year.

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