The Price of Death

(Zappala, a Pennsylvania native, teaches history at Fremont High School in Los Angeles)

Not long ago, $250,000 bought you a house, a car, started a college trust fund and still left you with enough for dinner at the Olive Garden. Today, $250,000 gets you a dead soldier.

My brother, Sgt. Sherwood Baker, was killed in action in Baghdad last month. Before he left, he took out the maximum Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance: $250,000. His wife gets that money and a folded flag. It should come with note: "Thanks for doing business with Uncle Sam. The medals are on us." What I'm left with is a dead brother, a fatherless nephew and a giant void where this giant man once stood.

For a guy who never made a lot of money in his life--he was a front line soldier making $2500 a month--Sherwood paid the highest price in the war, while companies and individuals in the war business are reaping maximum profits. Bush has dumped $149 billion into this war. In what reservoir does the all this money rain? Certainly not the bank accounts of widows! Who is truly rewarded for their sacrifice? How about this: Halliburton has racked up billions in government contracts since the start of the war.

And then there's Ahmed Chalabi and the INC. His organization received $39 million in 'aid' along with a fat $340,000 a month stipend for the last 2 years.

Sherwood had it all wrong. Maybe if he had helped to invent evidence to start a war, the Bush people would have been more rewarding. He certainly would have been on track to a safer and more profitable career path.

What exactly is false information worth to Uncle Sam? So long as you don't become an Iranian spy, it seems, it keeps you in the Pentagon penthouse.

But that racket wouldn't suit Sherwood. He did what most patriotic Americans do-he worked for a living. He knew he would never be rich from his job, but he wanted to help people. He was a county caseworker for the mentally handicapped. To supplement his income, he hired himself out as a DJ at local bars and clubs. Sherwood wasn't enough of an entrepreneur to make it into Harvard Business School. So, when George Bush told him to go to work with his Guard Unit in Iraq, he went willingly.

Sherwood never did own a Hummer; he was a gunner on a Humvee. Today, he's not lying on the couch in his remolded living room with a Big Screen TV and surround sound, playing video games with his son. He's lying alone in his grave.

Sherwood worked until the very end--he died pulling perimeter security for the Iraqi Survey Group. This group has assumed the responsibility of finding those elusive weapons of mass destruction (WMD)--any WMD--with the high hopes of making an honest man out of the President.

Sherwood's death presents an amazing irony. Find WMD, Sherwood? No, brother, if you wanted to make money and be alive, you should have told everybody that they existed and you knew where to find them.

Just before he died, Sherwood plainly illustrated where a life of hard work and dedication gets you--hungry and thirsty in the desert. In his last e-mail, he asked that we send him and his fellow soldiers food and water. As it turns out, the most powerful military machine in the world has its soldiers on rations.

How does this happen? I went to Halliburton's website to look for clues. After a dispute with the government over a few million dollars in overcharges, Halliburton stubbornly stated, "We may withhold all or a portion of the payments to our subcontractors" who provide food services. Which basically means that U.S. soldiers in Iraq don't eat. Despite its newfound billions in revenue, Halliburton has failed to fulfill its most basic responsibility--feed our troops. Our soldiers, on the other hand, have to do their job, no matter how hungry they are, or face courts-martial and time in Leavenworth. Just ask Camilo Mejia, the conscientious objector who was sentenced to a year in jail.

I've come to believe that Sherwood died for everybody else. I've had countless people tell me my brother is a hero and died defending our freedom. They may be right. In a country that promotes the virtues of the Free Market, he died for the benefit of the war profiteers and for very little benefit to himself.