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Fallen soldier's mother digs in
In her camp outside the President's ranch, Cindy Sheehan talks and waits.
By Denise Gamino
CRAWFORD — Even the florists are making house calls to Cindy Sheehan's foxhole.
Her small, silver tent is pitched in a rain-soaked ditch 1 1/2 miles from orange barricades that prohibit entrance to a road leading to President Bush's 1,600-acre rolling prairie ranch. She's not leaving, so the world comes to her: national television news teams, cell phone calls from members of Congress and steady deliveries of fresh cut flowers.
And every bouquet, it seems, sparkles with blooms of a distinctive "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" shade of lemon.
But Sheehan's eldest child won't be coming back to Fort Hood, which is close enough to pierce her vigil with the haunting booms of weaponry practice. Casey Sheehan, a 24-year-old former altar boy who planted 1,100 trees for his Eagle Scout project, was killed in an ambush on April 4, 2004, just days after the 1st Cavalry Division arrived in Iraq.
Cindy Sheehan, of Vacaville, Calif., is not just a bereaved mother of four. She's an angry mother who's stubbornly demanding a face-to-face meeting with the president to challenge his decision to invade Iraq and to argue for immediate troop withdrawal. She wants Bush to stop saying that her son and 1,843 others (by the latest Associated Press count) died for a "noble cause."
"I didn't 'lose' my son," she snaps when someone expresses sympathy over the loss of Casey, an Army specialist. "My son was killed by George Bush."
Sheehan is 6 feet tall, but her voice is more Katie Holmes than Lauren Bacall. Determination seems to fill every inch of her lanky, tanned frame, from the brim of her Catholic youth minister cap autographed by the teens under her charge to the brand new tattoo on her left ankle that bears her son's name and the dates of his birth and death.
The president is staying for five weeks at his ranch outside Crawford, about 20 miles west of Waco.
''I think it's obscene," Sheehan said. "He's committed troops to war. They're over there sweltering. They're not equipped properly, and the people of Iraq don't have any clean water; they don't have electricity to cool their houses down. Our troops are out there with their body armor, and they shouldn't be there in the first place.
"And then he comes and takes a five-week vacation. I just hope this is putting a little crimp in it for him," she said. "I'm never going to be able to fully enjoy another vacation because he's put a permanent hole in my life."
Sheehan and several dozen war protesters who have joined her cause marched to the barricades outside Bush's ranch on Saturday but were turned back by law officers. Since then, Sheehan has hung up her cell phone only long enough to grab a donated snack, type a daily blog on a laptop, put on a rain poncho and catch about four hours of sleep a night in her tent.
While she talks on the phone with one reporter, 15 more calls come in. She talks on the phone while sitting in a lawn chair, while pacing in the roadway, while sitting in someone else's car, its windshield wipers sweeping away rain dollops. She even talks while being driven into town for a restroom break at the Peace House, a nonprofit Crawford haven for protesters, where she is besieged by well-wishers.
For a woman who describes herself as having been "pathologically shy" as a young wife, Sheehan, 48, has been transformed from a grieving mom to a bona fide media celebrity. Along the way, she and her husband, Casey's father, have separated.
''We both are handling our grief differently," she says on the 5-mile ride into Crawford. "He agrees with the philosophy behind what I'm doing, that the war was wrong and George Bush lied, but he doesn't understand that I have a passion that I have to do this, and this is the only way. If I can shorten the war by one minute and save one life, that would just give me so much comfort in my grief."
Sheehan is joined in protest at her campsite, dubbed "Camp Casey," by about a dozen women from CODEPINK, a women's peace group. They wear funky clothing the color of Pepto-Bismol — oversized, floppy hats that would be at home at a garden party, lacy slips layered over T-shirts, flouncy skirts that get caught in car doors, hems flapping in the breeze — and they place huge pink banners ("Meet with Cindy," "Out of Iraq Now") around Sheehan's encampment.
The women in pink schedule every minute of Sheehan's day, allowing most reporters only five-minute interviews in order to squeeze in as many as possible. "She did 20 hours of interviews yesterday," one said Wednesday.
Other protesters have come from California, Arizona, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Sometimes as many as 50 cars are parked along the road. Some parents bring children; one California woman brought a large black dog that sought a pat on the head from every passerby. One car with three small children in the back seat drove through the encampment with Cat Stevens' "Peace Train" playing on the car stereo. From the road, onlookers take photos with disposable cameras.
The curious scene has taken on a sort of "Roger & Me" feel, with more than a few similarities with activist documentary filmmaker Michael Moore's dogged pursuit of General Motors chairman Roger Smith for his 1998 film. Interestingly, Moore's Web site carries Sheehan's daily blog (www.michaelmoore.com/mustread/index.php). And the scene is reminiscent of the days when another Texan was president, and anti-war demonstrators sometimes gathered and camped across the Pedernales River from Lyndon Johnson's ranch near Stonewall.
Johnson never met with the protesters, although sometimes he'd send an aide to speak to them or gather their petitions (which promptly went into the trash, according to one Johnson insider).
Two top Bush aides — National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and a deputy chief of staff — visited with Sheehan near her tent Saturday. But Sheehan wants to look the president in the eye, to ask him why her son died and to implore him to bring the troops home now.
Bush had met with Sheehan and her family at Fort Lewis, Wash., last summer, but Sheehan claims Bush did not know her son's name, refused to look at photos of him and repeatedly referred to him as the "loved one." Sheehan says she did not debate the president at the time because she was in grief and shock.
"I sympathize with Mrs. Sheehan," Bush told reporters Thursday. "She feels strongly about her position, and she has every right in the world to say what she believes. This is America.
"I understand the anguish that some feel about the death that takes place," Bush said. "I also have heard the voices of those saying: Pull out now. And I've thought about their cry and their sincere desire to reduce the loss of life by pulling our troops out. I just strongly disagree."
Immediate withdrawal "would send a terrible signal to the enemy," he said. "It would be a mistake for the security of this country and the ability to lay the foundations for peace in the long run if we were to do so."
Meanwhile, California members of Veterans for Peace began erecting white crosses near Sheehan's tent and along the country lane to honor the fallen soldiers of the Iraq war.
Sheehan's camp, situated in a shallow roadside ditch, has grown almost by the hour. Her tent is flanked by those of two quiet-spoken war protesters: Ann Wright, a former State Department diplomat who resigned in protest when Bush launched the Iraqi invasion in March 2003, and Jim Goodnow, a Coast Guard veteran from Terlingua who favors tie-dyed shirts and doesn't mind washing his feet in muddy rain puddles.
Sleeping on a cot nearby is Bill Mitchell, an Army veteran from Atascadero, Calif., a city near the coast midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Mitchell's son, Michael, a sergeant, was killed in the same ambush as Casey Sheehan.
"Our sons died together," Mitchell said. "They didn't know each other, but they flew home together. That picture (of flag-draped coffins on a military plane) in the Seattle Times on April 7 last year that got all the publicity? Mike and Casey were in that picture.''
Another parent whose child died in Iraq, Celeste Zappala, also arrived this week. Zappala and Sheehan are co-founders of Gold Star Families for Peace. Zappala's son, Sgt. Sherwood Baker, died on April 26, 2004, the first member of the Pennsylvania National Guard to die in combat since 1945.
When Sheehan saw Zappala arrive Tuesday evening, she jumped from her chair.
"Oh, sweetie," Sheehan said as she pulled Zappala into a tight embrace. "Finally! I just can't tell you how happy I am. Even though I was surrounded by people, I felt alone."
Then she took a call.
Afew hours later, a red pickup crawled to a stop near the tents, bearing a "Cowboy for Christ" front license plate.
"Well," said the driver, local cattle auctioneer Gregg Jernigan. "Has he (Bush) honored y'all with an appearance?"
It turned out that Jernigan and his wife, Annetta, are among the few self-proclaimed Democrats in a ranching area of deep Republican sentiment.
"Going into Iraq . . . ." Jernigan said, "that's like somebody hitting one of my kids and me go to my neighbor's and whup the hell out of 'em because someone else whupped my kid. You know, that is stupid," Jernigan said.
He paused to spit his chew into a Dr. Thunder soda can.
Annetta Jernigan said, "You know, he could defuse the whole thing if he'd just came out here and had a conversation with them." Other local landowners want the protesters to leave immediately. Marilyn Vansau clashed with them earlier this week and forced them to get off a small, triangle-shaped piece of land in front of Sheehan's tent.
"My children need a quiet place to live," she said.
Her next-door neighbor, Larry Mattlage, spent part of Wednesday afternoon on his four-wheeler trying to prevent protesters from parking cars on the grassy easement in front of his goat farm.
"I understand these people's cause. I appreciate that," he said. But, he added, "Everybody just wants to know when it's going to be over. Are we going to have to put up with this all summer?"
As the sun began to set, a red Coast Guard helicopter circled low near the encampment. But there wasn't much to see. Most protesters had gone to Crawford to eat or find a place to stay overnight.
The night sky awaited Sheehan.
"A few weeks after (Casey) died, as I was laying on his grave in Vacaville, I was looking up at the stars and I said, 'You know what, Casey? You're part of the universe now.' And as soon as I said 'now,' there was a shooting star," she said.
The annual Perseids meteor shower peaks tonight.