PITTSBURGH — Candles flickered against the August sky as thousands gathered in their neighborhoods around this state, Aug. 17, inspired by Gold Star mother Cindy Sheehan.

From the city neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, where 981 neighbors helped each other light their candles and hold up their signs, down the hill to where the Swissvale, Edgewood and Wilkinsburg municipalities meet, people quietly gathered to register their protest.

A little farther to the north, in the Republican stronghold of Butler, 69 neighbors held that community’s largest peace demonstration to date. And so it went: 32 neighbors in Gettysburg, 122 in Lancaster, 77 in Lackawanna, 339 in Chester and 82 in York. At the eastern end of the state, in Philadelphia, 1,051 stood in solidarity with Sheehan.

Diane Davis Santoriello, a Gold Star mother at the Squirrel Hill vigil, asked that other mothers of children killed in Iraq raise their hands and a sprinkling of hands modestly went up. After her remarks, all was quiet, honoring American and Iraqi dead with the unanswered question of “Why?” hanging in the summer air.

Across the country, reports MoveOn.com, the progressive, activist web site that helped organize support for Cindy Sheehan, 1,627 vigils took place on Aug. 17, in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Melanie House, 27, of Simi Valley, Calif., supported the war. Her husband John was serving in Iraq as a Navy corpsman. During the course of his service, they began to question a war that looked more and more like an “unwinnable mistake.” John House was killed on Jan. 26, 2005. On Aug. 17, Melanie House organized a vigil in solidarity with Sheehan. “Why did my husband die? Why are we over there? Is there as end in sight? What is the plan?” she asked her neighbors holding candles.

California saw the largest number of solidarity vigils. In the vast defense center of San Diego, 997 neighbors gathered. In the state’s rural counties of Nevada and Butte, 141 and 125, respectively, held high their candles, united in their demand to bring the U.S. troops home and to support Cindy Sheehan.

Renee Washington was on the street in downtown Baltimore with 354 of her neighbors. Her daughter, Olivia King, 28, is in the Army but stationed in the U.S. “I want to bring all troops home,” said Washington. “Bush should have tried peace first. I pray my daughter doesn’t have to go to Iraq. I didn’t bring her up to kill anyone.”

Tia Steele was standing Washington. Her stepson, David, 21, was killed in Iraq serving with the Marines. Steele joined the Gold Star Families for Peace and the American Friends Service Committee. “I don’t want him to be forgotten,” she said. “This war is a lie. It is a needless war. It must be stopped.”

There were 13 vigils around Maryland, with some of the largest in the Greater Washington, D.C., area. In Washington itself, 721 neighbors held their candles outside the White House, joined by 807 in nearby Montgomery County, 200 in Silver Spring and 210 in Prince Georges County.

Solidarity vigils took place in 13 Ohio counties, including the rural counties of Ashtabula, Clermont, Fayette, Tuscarawas, Pike, Marion and Greene. The largest vigil took place in Columbus, where 733 candles glowed in the night. In the struggling former industrial centers of Lorain, Youngstown, Toledo, Cleveland and Akron, hundreds of former steelworkers and autoworkers called their neighbors and joined the national solidarity vigil to bring the troops home from Iraq.

Even members of Congress can see the hundreds of thousands of candles and hear Gold Star family members. On Aug. 21, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) announced plans to hold a hearing Sept. 15 to develop an exit strategy from Iraq. In a statement, Woolsey said, “The war in Iraq, now entering its 30th month, seemingly brings a new atrocity or source of shame every day. The American death toll is approaching 2,000, with August on track to one of the war’s deadliest. And let’s not forget the wounded the victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome and the tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens killed so that their nation could be ‘liberated.’”

Woolsey may even see Republican members of Congress at her September hearings. Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska has very publicly called for an exit strategy.

dwinebr696 @ aol.com