MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Cindy Sheehan, one of the country's most prominent anti-war activists, announced this week that she is stepping away from the limelight, from public activism, and from serving as the face of the anti-war movement. That's the world she assumed after her son Casey Sheehan died while serving in Iraq in 2004.
In a statement released on Memorial Day, Sheehan said she'd come to the devastating conclusion that her son did indeed die for nothing, and that she was stepping aside in order to reclaim her health and take care of her surviving children.
On Monday's program, we heard from families who are mourning the lost of loved ones in the Iraq war. We visited them at Arlington National Cemetery. Today, we hear from mothers who have channeled their grief in the same way that Cindy Sheehan did - into opposing the war.
We're joined by three mothers. Doris Kent joins us on the phone from her home in Bellingham, Washington. Her son, Corporal Jonathan Santos, was killed on October, 2004, when a makeshift bomb exploded near his vehicle in Karabilah. Elaine Johnson joins us from WWDM in Columbia, South Carolina. Her son, Army Specialist Darius Jennings, was killed in Iraq on November 2nd 2003 when the Chinook helicopter he was aboard was shot down by Iraqi insurgence. Celeste Zappala joins us from WHYY in Philadelphia. Her son, Sergeant Sherwood Baker, died in April 2004 in an explosion during a raid on a suspected chemical warehouse in Baghdad. Thank you all so much for being with us.
Ms. CELESTE ZAPPALA (Sergeant Sherwood Baker's Mother): Thank you.
Ms. ELAINE JOHNSON (Army Specialist Darius Jennings' Mother): Thanks.
Ms. DORIS KENT (Corporal Jonathan Santos' Mother): Thank you.
MARTIN: Celeste, if you don't mind my asking, what did happen to your son?
Ms. ZAPPALA: My son Sherwood was assigned to the Iraq survey group elite. They were guarding the people who were looking for the weapons of mass destruction, and literally died protecting those people when they looked into a factory building. There was an explosion in the factory, and the debris flew through the air. And when he got out of his Humvee to try to help people, he was hit in the head and died in two hours.
MARTIN: How did you find out?
Ms. ZAPPALA: I found out home alone in the evening, and I heard the dog barking and went to the door and open the door and saw this soldier sitting on my porch with a notebook in his hand. And it took me a while to figure out why he was there, and then he asked me if I was Sherwood Baker's mother. And then I understood why he was there.
MARTIN: Elaine Johnson, may I ask you? How did you find out what happened to your son?
Ms. JOHNSON: It was just like with Celeste. When officers from Fort Jackson came to my home - my husband was at home so he called me and told me I needed to come home. He had to really do some convincing to bring me home, because we was at the racetrack. So when I got home, just like she said, the chaplain and a young soldier was there with a manila envelope and asked me was I Specialist Darius Jennings' mother.
And I said, yes. He said, what's your name? I said Harriet Johnson. He said well, this is not what the folder said. I said what the folder say? It says Elaine Johnson. That's it. I'm the same person. My son just didn't know my first name. And then after that, he told me that my son was killed in a helicopter crash. And what was so ironic, I watched the crash before I went to the racetrack, and I was like oh, my God, 16 soldiers just died.
MARTIN: You saw it on the news.
Ms. JOHNSON: Without knowing, I saw it on the news. I went back, you know, in my mind, and said, oh, my God. I was praying for these soldiers' family, and not knowing I was praying for my own family, too.
MARTIN: Doris Kent, if you don't mind, how did you find out?
Ms. KENT: The night before I was supposed to go to an event, and this really awful feeling came over me and I - all I could do was just lay there. And I usually don't get tired, you know, at seven o'clock in the evening, but I just couldn't move. And the next morning, our doorbell rang at 06:30 and my husband ran down the stairs to answer the door, and it was very, very quiet. There was like this silence. And I heard him come back up the stairs, and he said to me it's two Army officers, and I started crying.
Right then, I started screaming at the top of my lungs because I knew that they were there to tell me Jonathan was killed. And what they said is that he was on a convoy on his way back to the base, and a suicide bomber went straight for his vehicle and that he and his sergeant, Michael Owen, were killed, and Lance Corporal William Salazar was killed and their Iraqi interpreter, Adi(ph), was killed and that one soldier survived - Specialist Matthew Drake.
MARTIN: Many people who are speaking out in terms of memorials and acknowledgement - it's not necessarily the same as speaking out to ask that the war be stopped. How did you move to that stage?
Ms. KENT: When I saw that this war was continuing to go on and more lives were being lost, I said we've got to do something. There's no way that other mothers and other families should have to go through what we went through. In addition, Matthew Drake, who did survive this, the suicide bombing, came back with traumatic brain injury.
And I got to meet his mother and I cried just thinking about the hurdles that she has to go through to get help for her son. And then I think of how many more soldiers are coming back with traumatic brain injuries, and it just gets so overwhelming. I just get so angry. How could we, as a nation, not be angry about this and make it stop?
MARTIN: Elaine Johnson, what about you? Why did you decide to start speaking out?
Ms. JOHNSON: My son was killed on November 2nd, 2003. After I had my son's memorial in Colorado Springs, that's Fort Carson, I was interviewed by the Gazette newspaper, and that started it all. They said they never had a mother or a person to ever lashed out at the president, criticize the president of being insensitive.
So a couple of days after that, they called me and said that President Bush would like to meet me. And I said, well, okay. Only at his cost, because I was not spending my money to meet him. So he flew about 100 families back to Fort Carson. And in the room that I was in - it was only me and four more other families and I asked him questions, you know, on why we were over there. He couldn't answer that. I said what are we fighting for? He said to finish a mission.
I said why was my son and the rest of the soldiers on the Chinook helicopter, which was supposed to be only to transport cargoes not humans. He said, well, he didn't know. He referred me to General Wilson, which was in the same room. General Wilson's response was that they, you know, they was transporting them on that same helicopter, and never was shot down.
They flew over Fallujah. Fallujah was always a hotspot. Common sense would were tell them if you fly them over Fallujah, you should have escorts that have the equipment to detect these weapons that would attack the plane. But, you know, they're so brilliant, they're up in D.C. now.
That had a mother with a high school diploma can sit down and say, okay, I won't send them over a hotspot without protection. President Bush, he just didn't see that, and he told me I was kind of - seemed like I was kind of hostile.
I say, yes I am hostile because you sent my son over there, so my thing is all the questions that I asked him, he didn't know nothing then, and he definitely don't know nothing now because the United States is in worser shape now than it was in 2003 when my son died.
MARTIN: So when you left that meeting, did you leave with a determination to do something, or did that happened over time?
Ms. JOHNSON: When he told me, I said, what's the mission? He couldn't give me an answer. I said well, I'm going to tell you what. I'm on my mission now. My mission has just begun. And my mission is to fight, to bring these troops home, to take care of these troops when they get home.
Then he gave us a presidential coin. Now you check this out. He gave six of us a presidential coin. He tell us not to tell the rest of the people that was there. And then after that, he told us don't go sell it on eBay. Now you tell me if I am insensitive that can be? What kind of a caring person is that?
MARTIN: Celeste, what made you decide to start speaking out?
Ms. ZAPPALA: Well, when Sherwood was deployed, I knew that the war was wrong and I found a wonderful group, Military Families Speak Out. I attended meetings and demonstrations and I wrote to reporters and I called the White House and I called the Pentagon to complain that our soldiers weren't getting those supplies they needed in order to be in Iraq.
I didn't want to say too much, because I was afraid for him. And then when he was killed, I swore to him on his grave that I would speak the truth for him that the war is a betrayal to the military and to the democracy, and we try to make people understand our kids are not numbers. Our kids were beloved human beings with great potential, and we miss them terribly and they died for nothing.
MARTIN: Many people have criticized Cindy Sheehan throughout the time that she first began speaking out. And some of the people who've criticized her have also got military families, who say that it is disrespectful and certainly to the memory of loved ones who have been lost to say that they died for nothing. So Celeste, how do you respond to that?
Ms. ZAPPALA: Every military person has said that there will be a political solution someday, and I believe that that political solution has to begin when the U.S. troops leave Iraq. So I don't think it denigrates the honor of these truly noble people. I certainly don't think that this administration has honored them by sending them into this immoral war.
MARTIN: We're talking to mothers who have lost children in the Iraq war and have made the decision to speak out against the war. Celeste, I wanted to ask -Cindy Sheehan reports that she's paid a very high price for her activism. She said her life has been threatened. She's been called, you know, many, many derogatory names, you know, some of which I can't really repeat here. I'd like to know have you felt that you've paid a price for your activism? I'd like to ask the other mothers that as well.
Ms. ZAPPALA: The price that I've paid has been a different one. I work with my other two sons and their dad, and our whole family has been together on this. And so the price that we've paid has been that this effort to end the war has become the focus of our lives.
MARTIN: Are you disappointed that Cindy Sheehan has decided to withdraw from public activism?
Ms. ZAPPALA: I feel badly for her. It does take a big toll, I understand that. But we're all sisters in this sorrow and grief, and I hope that she feels better. I know that all of us are still here working towards the goal of bringing the war to an end.
And that's - you know, 10 more soldiers died on Monday. There'll be more dead people tomorrow. We can't stand down. We have to keep working and speaking and holding our representatives accountable. They have not represented us well.
MARTIN: Doris Kent, what about you? Are you disappointed?
Ms. KENT: I think I was surprised at first, but not disappointed. I've always admired her and was grateful that she was speaking out and that the media was paying attention to her because even if they didn't pay attention to me, at least they were hearing someone's voice on the pain of what it's been like to not have these - not have our sons. Cindy struggled with it every day in a public way. And for that, I think we all need to be grateful.
MARTIN: Elaine Johnson, are you disappointed that Cindy Sheehan's decided to withdraw?
Ms. JOHNSON: I'm not disappointed, but I'm going to go back to 04 and me and Ms. Celeste and Cindy and all of us was a member of the gold family, Military Families Speak Out. We did a terrific march in 04. All of us was together, we was at one. Cindy decided to pull out and be independent.
And that was like, we were no more - she was no more a part of us. I feel that if we would have stayed together and be as one like we started to, we would be more effective. If one family is getting tired, we are there to support each other and like, say, okay, we can do this because a military family is a big support system.
But if you're out there all alone, quite naturally, you're going to get caught up and you're going to forget that you did - you started out with these people and they are still here. I'm still here for Cindy.
MARTIN: Elaine, let me talk about this with you for a minute. One of the things that I've wondered about is that we know that minorities are disproportionately represented in the military, particularly in the Army. And yet, many of the people we've seen be most publicly active in opposing the war have not generally included minorities, and you are among the few. I'm wondering why that is.
Ms. JOHNSON: Michel, that is something that I am actually working on. I've asked the black African-American people to join me, but it's still a thing with the African-America versus the White. I've been - me and Cindy in March together in 04.
And after that, we have been on many speaking engagements together, but it was like the media just focused on Cindy, Cindy, Cindy. Cindy is not the only gold star mothers. We have tons of gold star mothers that are speaking out, but not getting the attention. So…
MARTIN: Why did you think that is, Elaine? Why do you think that is?
Ms. JOHNSON: The media always - it capitalizes on - and I don't want to be a racist. But I'm just going to call it like I'm seeing it, okay? Me and Cindy march hand to hand. The media went straight to Cindy. And what surprises me now after Cindy throw in the towel, I have done five radio interviews yesterday and they would never call me. Never.
We've been used to struggling, you know. Black folks been struggling for a long time. I'm struggling now, and I'm still going to be struggling because I'm struggling with my son's death. So that's the struggle. Everybody's struggling in a different way.
But I don't particularly saying she's throwing in the towel, because she's still was carrying a torch. And I said the only thing we can do is pick up that little flame that was left and add it to our torch that makes it bigger and carry it on. The reason I will never give up the struggle, because a coffin came home.
I don't know whether my son was in that coffin, so I buried a coffin. I have not yet buried my son. I said when I bury my son, it will be when the war is over and the last soldier come home. If it's not Specialist Darius Jennings, then I will go to the cemetery and I will have my funeral.
MARTIN: Ladies, I don't know what to say. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry for your pain, and I just appreciate your willingness to open your hearts and speak. Doris Kent, Elaine Johnson, Celeste Zappala, thank you all so much for joining us and speaking with us today.
Ms. JOHNSON: Thank you for asking us.
Ms. ZAPPALA: Thank you, Michel.
Ms. KENT: Thank you. Bless you.
Ms. JOHNSON: I love you, Celeste.
MS. ZAPPALA: I love you, too, honey. Thank you for being here today.
MARTIN: For a link to Cindy Sheehan's statement about leaving the anti-war movement, please go to our Web site at npr.org/tellmemore. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.