PHILADELPHIA - In Love Plaza, about 75 people mingled in bright sunshine, chatting noisily while one speaker after another droned on at a campaign rally. Vendors hawked T-shirts, and children frolicked in a fountain opposite ornate City Hall.
Then Celeste Zappala stepped onstage. Standing between columns of red, white and blue balloons, she held up the Purple Heart awarded posthumously to her oldest son. The plaza fell silent.
In calm, measured tones, Zappala talked about her opposition to the war in Iraq. She spoke with pride and tenderness about her son, Sherwood Baker, 30, a National Guardsman who was killed in April in a munitions explosion in Baghdad, Iraq.
"Sherwood was a patriot," said Zappala, director of the Philadelphia Council on Aging. "He was brave and faithful and loyal. He believed in America, and he believed in democracy. And I made an oath to him not to be quiet, not to be cynical in my grief."
Before her son left for Iraq early this year, Zappala, 57, joined a group of military families who support the troops but oppose the war. Today, Military Families Speak Out has more than 1,700 member families across the country who participate in protests, appear on radio and television and confront public officials. By telling stories about their loved ones, they hope to sway hearts and minds and help bring an end to the war.
At Love Plaza, after Zappala finished a 15-minute speech that left much of the audience wiping its eyes, an Army veteran from the Vietnam War era approached her.
"For those of us who have been in the service, I wish more parents would speak out," said Steve McCarter of Glenside, Pa. "This shows that not everyone connected to the military is united behind this war."
For centuries, soldiers have been trained to think as a group. With its uniforms and strict regulations, military culture fostered an us-vs.-them mentality. The powerful sense of solidarity applied by extension to close family members. In military households, it was understood that speaking out violated the code of the clan and carried consequences.
Although numerous groups of military personnel and their families support the Iraq war, MFSO is the only organization formed by military families who are against it.
The organized expression of dissent is "a new and significant development," said Jeremi Suri, a University of Wisconsin history professor who is an expert on antiwar movements.
It is a big change from the 1960s and 1970s, when opposition to the Vietnam War was lumped in with contempt for the military establishment. "In the past, groups related to soldiers have felt uncomfortable" criticizing a war, Suri said.
But many parents of today's young troops were raised in an era of protest, "and no matter how quiescent they may have been later on, this has revived it," said Roland L. Guyotte, another authority on antiwar movements and a history professor at the University of Minnesota at Morris.
The same parents, Guyotte said, have seen "the emergence of influence among the 9/11 families," relatives of victims of the terrorist attacks who successfully pushed for investigations and compensation.
Military Families Speak Out took root almost two years ago, before the United States invaded Iraq. Two Boston labor organizers, Charley Richardson and his wife, Nancy Lessin, grew concerned about what they saw as the real motivation for the war. And they wanted to put a face to the troops who would be risking their lives.
So they made a poster with a picture of their son, a Marine who had served in Kosovo and Afghanistan. The caption read: "This is our son Joe. Please don't send him to war for oil." When Richardson and Lessin took the poster to antiwar rallies and other political events, it caught the attention of military families troubled by the war.
Last fall, Lessin, 55, and Richardson, 51, launched MFSO, contacting everyone on their burgeoning e-mail list. Within 24 hours, about 200 military spouses, parents, siblings and grandparents had signed up for an organization with no dues, no bylaws, no board of directors and a headquarters at the founders' kitchen table.
As the organization has grown, Lessin and Richardson have hired a part-time media consultant in Washington to help coordinate requests for appearances by members. The group relies on donations for its operating expenses.
MFSO also mobilizes protests, such as one by parents who went to the White House in April to deliver a package of letters to President Bush. Most had lost children in Iraq. A White House guard would not accept the letters.
Members find the organization through chat rooms and Internet searches, word of mouth and by hearing MFSO speakers at public gatherings.