Gold Star Mom from Philadelphia Explains Why Donald Trump Doesn’t Understand True Sacrifice

Celeste Zappala says she "jumped up screaming" when she heard the candidate's controversial remarks about Ghazala Khan.

Gold Star mom Celeste Zappala (third from right) poses with family, including her son Sherwood Baker, who was killed in Iraq in April 2004, the month after this photo was taken.

Gold Star mom Celeste Zappala (third from right) poses with family, including her son Sherwood Baker, who was killed in Iraq in April 2004, the month after this photo was taken.

On Monday, Gold Star parents across the United States signed a letter to Donald Trump, condemning his comments on Gold Star mother Ghazala Khan, who appeared at the Democratic National Convention. One woman who signed it was 69-year-old Celeste Zappala, a retired city employee whose son Sherwood Baker was killed in Iraq in April 2004. We spoke with Zappala, who lives in West Mount Airy, on Wednesday morning.

Why did you decide to add your name to this letter to Donald Trump?

I had been texting and talking with some of the other Gold Star families who I’ve stayed in touch with, and we are all appalled by the assault on that family. When I saw them appear at the convention, I really focused on her, because I identified with her. I could see in her face and demeanor how fragile she was, how she was struggling to hold herself together. That was evident to me.

Did you worry about what the reaction to their appearance would be?

Yes. As I watched, I was cheering for them, yes. Because they should be there. But I knew there would be backlash, because they are Muslim. The next day, when I heard Trump go after Mrs. Khan with that two-step he does — some people are saying maybe she’s not allowed to say anything, because of her religion, maybe, I’m just saying — I jumped up screaming when I heard that.

I think a lot of people did.

How outrageous it is to attack a Gold Star family. If you are Gold Star, you earned the right to say whatever it is you need to say. I respect all sides of it. You cannot insult, disparage or humiliate a Gold Star family. All he needed to say was, “Thank you for your sacrifice, and I appreciate your opinion.”

Can you please tell me about your son?

He grew up here in Mount Airy. Went to Roman Catholic. Then King’s College. He was a musician. He worked as a social worker for mentally challenged adults. He was married. He had a son. He was a big guy — 6’4″ — and a jokester and prankster. He would never let you be sad. He wouldn’t allow sorrow in his midst.

I’ve read that you have an extensive background as a peace activist, going all the way back to the Vietnam War. So how did you react when he signed up for the National Guard in 1997?

He said he wanted to do this and told me, “Don’t worry: The National Guard never goes to war.” Nobody in the Pennsylvania National Guard had been killed in combat since 1945. And don’t you know it? He became the first one to die in combat since then.

May I ask how that happened?

He was part of the Iraq survey group looking for weapons of mass destruction. There was an explosion, and a building blew up. This was six weeks after it was pretty much agreed that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I spoke out a lot after that happened, but pulled back several years ago. Now I am in that mindset again. I’m a bit raw again.

I believe that in my best hours, the way we honor the fallen is to try to be the best citizens we can be, and I take that responsibility very seriously when I am called upon, when my heart is called upon…

What was your reaction when Donald Trump was presented with a Purple Heart this week?

Who do you think you are? You have no idea. I have my son’s Purple Heart downstairs. I look at it periodically. I wish I didn’t have it. It’s not some prize from a gum ball machine.

I don’t recall hearing the term “Gold Star family” before last week, and others are saying the same. Why do you think that is?

So few people are involved in the active military, such a small percentage of the population, unlike in the Vietnam era when everybody was being drafted. So a lot of people don’t know people who are in the military, don’t have connections.

When people are killed, it’s not necessarily big news. It used to make me nuts when there was some big celebrity thing in the news when four people died the same day overseas. What happens in the military is just something people skip over.

To be a Gold Star family, you’re the family of a fallen soldier. It’s the club no one should ever want to be in. It’s really important we remember that there are people dying, and we sent them, we pay them. We should be real serious about why they’re there. This isn’t a video game. This is real.

Thank you for your sacrifice and for speaking about it.

Thank you. I appreciate the chance to talk about it.

Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.