Sgt. Sherwood Baker, was deployed to Iraq. His mission was to provide
convoy security for the Iraq Survey Group as they searched for the
never-to-be-found Weapons of Mass Destruction.
On April 26 of last year I was teaching history to 11th graders in
South Los Angeles. We were discussing the Vietnam War.
Meanwhile, my brother and his Army National Guard unit were poised
to inspect a building in Baghdad. Sherwood was on site security. He
manned a 50-caliber machine gun atop a Humvee. His back was to the
building; he was just 5 feet away.
At 6-foot-4, Sherwood was too big for that kind of work. Better to
put a little guy, a smaller target, up there. But Sherwood had proved
himself in training to be a good shot. And he had proved himself in
life to be a reliable man. He was fearless and aware and it's where
he belonged in that situation.
As the men went in, the building exploded. Sherwood was struck from
behind. He died of blunt head trauma.
I got the call during 5th period.
I flew back East to be with my family. I left that night on the red-eye
with my wife, Selma. My father picked us up. It was ungodly early.
I've never shared a moment of such helplessness with my dad. I couldn't
look at him because when I did, I had to shed my disbelief about what
I was doing in Philadelphia on a cold Tuesday morning.
We all grew up in Philly. My little brother, Raphael, and my parents
still live there.
Sherwood had gone to college in Wilkes-Barre, a close-knit, blue-collar
town in upstate Pennsylvania. The intimacy and the bareness of character
in the Wyoming Valley played to his sensibilities. He had made it
a home for life. He started a family with his wife, Debra. They have
a son, James-Dante. Sherwood had recently begun a job with the county
as a caseworker for the mentally handicapped -- damn good work in
a defunct steel town.
We went to see Sherwood. I mean, it wasn't him, it was his body. Dead
people never seem to look like the person they were.
But I found him somewhere behind the medals and the uniform. My disbelief
melted away. I knew what lay in that casket.
I was forced to accept that life has a way of being cruel and unfair,
of being imperfect and unpredictable. But I knew there was more, much
more to answer for. I figured I'd better start using the brain God
gave me because it's the best way to honor human nature, something
my brother represented with distinction.
I've been picking up the pieces around Sherwood's life and death,
pieces that were scattered by that explosion. I've been sifting for
a clue, a hint of insight into how this came to pass; not just with
Sherwood, but the whole thing.
I watched with sadness as this war unfolded. I watched the justification
for it magically appear. I saw the ignorance and the Orwellian fear-mongering.
I watched shock and awe but I never thought I'd be reduced to those
I realized that if I was going to make sense of this thing, I had
to start with what I know. I'm staring at the life of one man, one
soldier, and how that life would end in Iraq. Maybe within Sherwood's
story, I thought, lies a broader moral.
There's a simple answer out there as to what Sherwood's death meant.
It's an answer that rejects introspection and typifies American dogma:
"Sherwood died for our country." I have heard it a lot.
I don't think I'll ever know what Sherwood died for. Maybe Sherwood
knew in that moment. I only pray that, at the very least, he died
with peace, because the circumstances were incredibly violent.
What I do know is what my brother lived for. His devotion was shaped
by his experience. And it was his devotion that eventually led him
off into the desert.
Sherwood was a hell of a patriot. He flew a flag in front of his house,
he embraced the ideology of our Constitution, he joined the Army.
And that doesn't even scratch the surface of who he was.
Sherwood's time on earth seemed to orbit in the circles of fate. He
was abused and abandoned by his birth parents at 13 months. Our folks
took him in as a foster child on Veteran's Day, 1974, a year before
I was born. They raised him as their own.
Sherwood's fortunes conflicted with his conscience. Being a foster
child who knew his biological family, he had to live with a parallel
life. It broke his heart to know that his parents were lunatics. But
it was worse to know that his brothers and sister were stuck with
From the beginning of his life, Sherwood developed a desire to forge
responsibility in an irresponsible world. He was blessed to be big
and it helped him in his self-appointed role as an enlivened guardian
I was his skinny little brother and, Lord, did I need his protection.
My mother was terribly steadfast in her belief in endorsing public
education. She sent us to a tough school, to say the least.
Sherwood got me through, but he didn't do it by hurting people. Well,
sometimes he did. But most times he used his size to just plain scare
the shit out of my antagonists.
In reliving these moments, I see the precursors of a good soldier.
Sherwood was 21 and still in college when he had James-Dante. He saw
a chance to be a better father than the one he hardly knew and would
rather not know. Never would his son's future rest on fate.
He enlisted in the National Guard to help ends meet,sure, but also
to give back to the community that embraced him.
As kids, our parents wouldn't let us play with water guns and here
he was, a soldier. But the concept of service was forged by example
in our household. Our mother works in city government helping the
elderly. Our father was a reservist himself who worked for the Department
of Defense for 32 years. Sherwood and I spoke about the politics of
the Iraq war shortly after it started. He was by no means naive about
the suspicious evidence that justified the invasion of Iraq. But if
called to serve, he said, his job would be wholly apolitical. For
him, it was better left at that. He had enough on his mind. Certainly,
the guys in his unit had become his family over the past seven years.
I think few people in their right mind want to head into a war zone.
But if Sherwood had to go, he would, without question, stand up and
In the Army, Sherwood's MOS was as a forward observer. An F.O. is
the guy who goes ahead of tank lines to redirect missile and shell
strikes. It requires a reckless personality, someone who understands
danger but regards it as the inevitable consequence of getting the
I had to laugh when he explained that to me because it was strangely
perfect for him. He always had enough of a screw loose to choose that
kind of a job. But he also had quiet dignity when it came to accepting
more responsibility than others.
And that was, really, the only thing quiet about him.
He lived a loud life. He screamed in high pitches. He played the trumpet
(he was no Miles Davis). He loved music and thought everyone should
as well. His favorite activity was to raise the volume.
I have focused on listening during this time. I keep hoping to hear
in the echoes of Sherwood's shouts a note of reason.
But so far I haven't heard why we as a country put our collective
consciousness into invading that country. I haven't heard why we accepted
being cajoled, coerced and outright lied to. But that never mattered
to Sherwood. His role in all of this was to be resolute and brave.
He always played his role well.
Sherwood and I were freelance disc jockeys as teenagers. He labeled
every L.P. we bought with "B-Z" productions, a heartfelt
reference to our partnership as brothers, despite our different last
He parlayed that into a gig as a DJ on his college radio station.
He was a true rap aficionado. He brought hip-hop to upstate Pennsylvania
-- a coup in 1994. After college, he picked up where we left off,
working himself in as a regular DJ at weddings, parties and local
bars. He always knew the right song to play.
It's no surprise that I've been hearing in my head a line from a Slick
Rick song he often recited. It summed up the unchecked pride he had
in fatalism, born as it was from his circumstance and reality: "This
type of shit happens every day."
Sherwood would chuckle at the sheltered, overprivileged, retrogressive
Americans who believe that their hyperactive sense of danger is a
cause worth others fighting for. The security moms, six-figure executives,
stock dividend trust-funders -- they aren't in Iraq, they certainly
don't send their kids there. Sherwood didn't have to go there to figure
What he wouldn't find funny is that we the majority, down on the food
chain, devour a doctrine of dread with our appetite for sensationalism.
And when the populace gets hungrier, it turns to wrath and revenge
to fill it up.
When people say, "Sherwood died to avenge 9/11," I have
to bow my head and leave. Sherwood was not a vengeful person. For
his sake, I have pledged to relinquish anger, which seems to be as
equally revered in our culture as fear is.
We had a memorial service for Sherwood in Philadelphia a few days
after the funeral in Wilkes-Barre. There was an open microphone. The
mayor of Philadelphia gave an inspired recitation and interpretation
of "The Lord Is My Shepherd." He was followed by our old
baby sitter who recounted some goofy story about us banging pots together
on New Year's Eve. The range of voices, I'm sure, suited Sherwood's
A politically active friend got up and delivered an impassioned speech
about her hatred for the Bush administration and how Sherwood's human
rights had been violated. I heard the anger, the one that said, "He
died in vain."
Sherwood made me the executor of his will. We sat down together to
go over it. Even as he explained to me that he wanted a burial ceremony
with full military honors, I was in denial about what could happen
over there. He, of course, wasn't. And if that did happen, he wanted
to be damn sure that his kid knew he died a hero. The way his son
would remember him was all he could control.
And then he went to Iraq, with pride and courage, because he made
an oath before God and he took such commitments seriously. He went
to Iraq to do his job. In the end, that's the choice of a soldier.
It is not in vain.
For most of America today, the "War in Iraq" has been dumbed
down to nothing more than a political football. We've got two teams
trying to pick up a fumble and run with it. We've wrangled now for
years over the existence of WMD. But in our obsession with that process,
we neglect soldiers like Sherwood and Iraqi civilians -- whose
lives were sacrificed to find those weapons. As it turns out, to not
find those weapons.
Sherwood didn't die in vain. But the war in Iraq is still being fought
in vain. We have acquiesced to an agenda that has killed our brothers
and sisters, raided our Treasury and fractured our moral standing
in the world. The legacy of Sherwood's service will only be honored
when we all demand truth in our politicians, demand that they too
serve with honor and integrity.
Demanding that, I believe, is the best way that we can honor a dead
A slightly longer version of this essay
first appeared on salon.com
Copyright © 2005 Dante Zappala