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Moms of war dead divided over vigil


Web Posted: 08/14/2005 12:00 AM CDT
Tracy Idell Hamilton and Jeorge Zarazua
San Antonio Express-News Staff Writers

The scene had a simple poignancy: The mother of a fallen soldier, solitary in her grief and stolid in her opposition to the war that claimed her son, seeking an audience with the president by camping out nearly on his front porch.

But life never is that simple, and the vortex spinning around Cindy Sheehan as she continues to protest outside the ranch where George W. Bush takes his working vacations now is informed not only by a mother's pain but by politics and public relations.

So it was that on Saturday, as hundreds of protestors who have found a voice in Sheehan faced off with those who see her as a shameless opportunist exploiting her son's death, a galvanizing figure began to look like a polarizing one.

What's happening in Crawford and the public's perception of it — as shaped by the national media's increasing coverage — is stirring not only a national conversation about the war but about who is qualified to join that conversation and how pure their motives must be.

The nation's divergent views of Sheehan and the tactics she has chosen to employ outside this Texas ranch far from where her son died are mirrored by the mothers interviewed Saturday in San Antonio — mothers who, like Sheehan, have lost sons in Iraq.

Many of those who support the war find her crusade, and the media frenzy now surrounding it, repugnant. They point out that their sons and daughters are fighting — and dying — for Sheehan's right to protest.

They echo the view of Bush supporters who rallied Saturday against Sheehan, proudly hoisted their own signs up in the air. One read, "Don't dishonor our troops."

Other mothers say they now believe Bush lied about the reasons he sent their sons into war, yet they still feel reluctant to speak out, for fear of being branded unpatriotic or worse — that their children died in vain.

But some have gained strength from Sheehan's outrage, and think the tide will continue to turn in her direction, turning the formerly silent into a more potent political force.

Sheehan eagerly repeats poll numbers showing that a majority of Americans don't support the war.

In the last week, multiple polls showed more than 50 percent of respondents disapprove of Bush's handling of the war, feel it was a mistake to send troops at all, and believe the war has not made the country safer from terrorism.

San Antonian Kim Smith, who lost her 19-year-old son, Army Pvt. Robert Louis Frantz, in June 2003, tries to keep her public comments neutral. Last week she spoke to a mother of a fallen soldier who wishes she could go to Crawford and protest Sheehan, while another wanted to head up and stand next to her in solidarity.

And while it hasn't made Smith change her mind, "this whole situation sure makes you think seriously about how you feel," she said. "It's just getting bigger and bigger."

Tammara Rosenleaf, 47, of Belton, tried to explain why she traveled to Crawford to support Sheehan.

"Cindy is just a mom. She just said the right thing at the right time and you know."

Like many war supporters, Betty Lynn Russell metaphorically holds her nose and defends Sheehan's right to protest, but believes it does grave damage to the men and women serving overseas. She says before he left, her son, Sgt. John Russell, overheard a negative comment about the war in a restaurant.

"It was like a kick in the gut," said Russell, who lost John in November 2003. "People may not realize it, but (those views) are taken as personal attacks. We can debate the war when it's over, but not now."

Russell does share one parallel with Sheehan — over the use of their sons' names. Sheehan doesn't want Bush lumping her son into the category of "noble sacrifice" when he speaks of the fallen soldiers from Iraq.

Similarly, Russell was angered to hear anti-war protesters reading her son's name in a reading of the war dead in a public park.

"They have no right to use his name like that," she says, the distaste evident in her voice.

Lois Alva, mother to Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, who lost his leg in Iraq on the very first day of the invasion, is unqualified in her support of Sheehan.

"I think she's so courageous. I wish I could be there with her in person," Alva said.

When Bush tells families to "be comforted," Alva, like Sheehan, is infuriated.

"If this is such a noble cause, why hasn't he asked his daughters to serve? Why hasn't he said to them, 'This is a noble cause, and I will be so proud of you for serving.?'"

Also like Sheehan, Alva has not forgotten that Bush insisted to the nation that Saddam Hussein's regime was an immediate threat because he had weapons of mass destruction.

"We're all patriotic. We all believed him," she said. "And he can say, okay, maybe there weren't WMDs, but Hussein was a bad man. Well, there are lots of bad men out there. I think more people are going to start realizing they were lied to."

The argument that the U.S. cannot pull its troops out now, lest the 1,846 men and women who've died so far will have done so in vain has little traction for Alva, whose husband served in Vietnam.

"We're going to have to pull out sometime," she said. "We lost 54,000 by the time we pulled out from that lost cause. Are we going to wait that long?"

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