This piece first aired in May, 2009, as part of the show, “Half Mast.”
- HOST: This is War News Radio. This past Memorial Day, hundreds of Philadelphia-area residents gathered at the city’s Korean War Memorial to commemorate the service of veterans past and present. At the event, family members of those lost in Iraq and Afghanistan unveiled a new section of the Memorial dedicated to local casualties of America’s current wars. War News Radio attended the Memorial Day Ceremony and spoke to those there to mark the occasion. Elizabeth Threlkeld reports.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Memorial Day 2009 dawned clear and sunny in Philadelphia, and members of the Board of Directors of the city’s Korean War Memorial were out early, setting up for the day’s event. By the late morning, more veterans arrived, some who had fought in Korea, and others who had served in World War II, Vietnam, or in more recent wars, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Also present were friends and family of service members killed in the current wars. They sat up front, waiting to take part in the conclusion of the ceremony — the unveiling of their loved ones’ names in the new section of the Memorial. Those inscriptions are the first permanent tribute to Philadelphia locals killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they grew out of an earlier tradition. The President of the Korean War Memorial Foundation, a veteran and Philadelphia lawyer named Bill Kelly, explains how the group of Korea vets began taking time to remember the fallen service members of today’s wars.
BILL KELLY: At our meetings we always see these lists of those that have been killed in the Mideast. I say you know, no one’s praying for them, no one’s even mentioning their names. Why don’t we have a ceremony each month? So we chose to have it on the fourth Friday of every month. And we never missed a night, never missed a night.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Bruno Turlessee is another member of the Board of the Korean War Memorial, and one of the veterans whose made his way to those Friday memorial services. He says they proved a powerful way to remember the dead and wounded of Iraq and Afghanistan. But then, a few months ago, another board member suggested creating a more permanent memorial to those lost in the current wars. As he explains, dedicating part of the Korean War Memorial to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan isn’t just about paying respect to the fallen service members — it’s also a gift to their families.
BRUNO TURLESSEE: These people have no place to grieve when they come here. So the families can now come to this area — it’s the Korean War Memorial but the commemorative section of the Afghan and Iraq War — and they’ll have some place. The names are recorded, the rank, and they have some closure.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: It’s no coincidence that it was veterans of the Korean War who decided to take on this project. Korea is sometimes known as “the forgotten war.” Overshadowed by World War II and the Vietnam War, it’s a conflict most American know little about — even though some 37,000 U.S. troops were killed during the fighting from 1950-53. The Korea vets we spoke with said they returned home to a public that didn’t know much — or care much — about the war they’d been fighting. Kelly says that he wants to ensure that the veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan today have a different experience.
BILL KELLY: This is the forgotten war veterans taking action to make sure that those young men and women are not forgotten. That’s the whole gist of it all.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: On Memorial Day, the new Iraq & Afghanistan section of the Korean War Memorial was officially unveiled.
MUSIC: “Amazing Grace.”
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: The names of the fallen service members had been inscribed into a section of stones in one corner of the Memorial. The mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, spoke, as did state representative Brian Lentz, himself a veteran of the Iraq War. Vets from former wars laid wreaths at the front of the Memorial and offered prayers for current soldiers. Later in the ceremony, the crowd moved around to the side of the memorial for the unveiling of the names. Family members and friends of those killed in Afghanistan and Iraq pulled back the pieces of fabric covering the inscribed stones. One woman wore a shirt with her late husband’s picture; next to her, her young son wore a much smaller version of the same shirt. We stopped to talk with another woman who carried a bouquet of white flowers and a framed picture of her son. Her name is Celeste Zapalla; her son Sherwood Baker was killed in Iraq on April 26th, 2004.
CELESTE ZAPALLA: He was part of the Iraq Survey Group. He was doing, they called it site security. So the Iraq Survey Group were the people who were looking for the weapons of mass destruction. The mission they went to, they went to a factory in Baghdad. And unfortunately there was supposed to be a piece of heavy equipment that should have gone along with them, and it was broken that day, so they were totally unprotected. And there was an explosion. And he was actually in his Humvee when that happened and he jumped out to try to help and there was a secondary explosion and he was hit by debris, and he was killed in two hours.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Celeste had come to the ceremony with two of her godchildren, Jennifer and Daniel Cox. The two families had lived next door to each other, and grown up together. Daniel says that Sherwood was like an older brother to him, an outgoing guy with a vibrant personality.
DANIEL COX: I have a lot of memories of him because he was just a loud, boisterous, fun guy. But I know that, I remember he played the trumpet — and we were talking about this earlier when they were playing taps, it kinda reminded us — and he used to practice the trumpet in his room. So you would just be walking by and constantly just hear the loud noise of the trumpet.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Sherwood’s mother, Celeste, says that her son brought that same enthusiasm to his work.
CELESTE ZAPALLA: He was a case worker for mentally retarded adults, and he was like a champion. Nobody could mess with his clients. He was out to protect them.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Sherwood joined the National Guard in 1997, looking to repay his student loans and serve his country. He thought he’d be building roads — that’s what National Guard members in his area usually did. But on the morning of 9/11, everything changed. Celeste remembers watching the television coverage and realizing that their family’s life would never be the same. Over the next year and a half, she followed the run-up to the Iraq War anxiously. Unlike many military families, Sherwood and his loved ones were strongly opposed to the war.
CELESTE ZAPALLA: The day that he war was declared, my son and his wife were in San Fransisco at demonstrations, they were arrested. And then when Sherwood had to go he just told us, you know, I can’t think of the politics of it. He just had to try to do what he could to get himself and his men home safely. And in that deployment, everybody got back but him.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: Sherwood’s name is one of 62 engraved on the newly dedicated Memorial. And those 62 are only a few among the many who have served and sacrificed in the wars. As she remembers her son, Celeste can’t help thinking about the thousands of service members still in Iraq.
CELESTE ZAPALA: It’s so important that people hear and understand and don’t forget that there are still 120,000 people there. And Sherwood was number 720, and there are 4,300 people now who have been killed. And we owe them — we owe them the memory but we also owe them the effort to bring it to an end.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: While not everyone who attended this Memorial Day ceremony in Philadelphia would echo Celeste’s political opinions on the war, they all share her commitment to honoring this newest generation of America’s fallen.
ELIZABETH THRELKELD: For War News Radio, I’m Elizabeth Threlkeld.