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The face behind Bush vigil

By C.W. Nevius
San Francisco Chronicle

Before the war in Iraq, Cindy Sheehan was no rebel. The mother of four was a youth minister at St. Mary's Catholic Church, in quiet, conservative Vacaville.

But when Sheehan's son Casey, 24, was killed in Iraq on April 4, 2004, her world lurched out of orbit. In the sleepless days and nights that followed, Sheehan tapped into the anti-war movement on the Internet, looking for answers.

"Sometimes I get up in the mornings and I turn on my computer,'' she told me when I met her in February at a peace vigil in Benicia, "and my husband comes home at 5, and I'm still there in my pajamas.''

Back then, it would have been impossible to imagine that the quiet mother from Vacaville would be challenging President Bush in a quixotic vigil outside his ranch in Crawford, Texas. She wants the commander in chief to explain the "noble cause" for which her son died.

Although she had to leave Thursday to tend to her ailing mother in Los Angeles, Sheehan has gained such notoriety that she's been called the Rosa Parks of the anti-war movement. Whether the president elects to meet with her or not, she has clearly reopened the debate and put a human face on it.

Which makes you wonder: How did Cindy Sheehan become a national celebrity?

Slowly and stubbornly.

"She started writing little essays and sending them out,'' says Pat Kniesler, a peace activist in Benicia and co-founder of the Web site Iraq Casualty Count. "You know how it is. A friend passes them on, and then another, and pretty soon, you get a regular e-mail list.''

When Kniesler realized that the anti-war essays from a mother whose son died in the war were coming from nearby Vacaville, she wrote Sheehan a personal note. A friendship formed, and Kniesler saw the depth of Sheehan's dedication.

"Sometimes I would send her an e-mail at, like, 1 in the morning,'' Kniesler says, "and I'd get one right back.''

But despite her efforts, Sheehan was becoming more and more frustrated.

"I always got the feeling that her anger gained momentum over time,'' Kniesler says. "She was doing all the right things and getting nowhere.''

And that, in an odd way, is how she ended up camped on the road outside Bush's ranch.

You can question Sheehan's stand, or her tactics. But there is no debating her commitment. Or her guts. You have to live in Vacaville, a tightly knit community in the shadow of Travis Air Force Base, to understand what it means to take such a public stand against the war.

"Vacaville,'' says Toni Chan, a resident who describes herself as patriotic but against the war, "is one of those towns where when people buy a house, they put in a flagpole and fly the flag.''

Sheehan often has not been a popular figure in her hometown, and the announcement that her husband, Pat, has filed for divorce is widely seen as proof that her single-minded opposition to the war has taken a toll on her family and friendships.

"I have lost almost every friend I had before Casey died,'' Sheehan said on an Internet site in August.

Why does she persist?

For her son.

Casey was the first born, the Eagle Scout, the counselor at the Pendola Church youth camp near Grass Valley (Nevada County). The camp director, Steve Tholcke, says they have almost finished "Casey's Grove,'' a small theater area for storytelling and mini-plays -- the kind of thing Casey loved to do. He was, many assumed, bound for a career as a youth minister.

"I don't know if he ever told me he was going to become a priest,'' Tholcke says, "but I know it was part of his thought process.''

Sheehan, surprised when Casey enlisted in 2000, says the Army recruiter promised Casey that he could be a chaplain's assistant. But when Casey got to boot camp, she says, he was told no, that position wasn't available. He ended up as a mechanic.

Those are the kinds of twists of fate she turns over in her mind, and the anger builds. If the president ever meets with her, he'd better be prepared to hear some salty language from the former youth minister.

"I got an e-mail the other day, and it said, 'Cindy, you use so much profanity, there's people on the fence that get offended,' '' she said in a speech before Veterans for Peace. "And you know what I said? 'You know what, goddamn it? How in the world is anybody still sitting on the fence?' ''

It was that passion that drove her to Texas. She'd written the essays, addressed the groups, taken her message to media. But it wasn't working. Few were listening.

"She decided,'' Kniesler says, "to go for broke. Which none of us would have had the nerve to do.''

Those who talk about Sheehan's "plan'' in going to Crawford don't know what they are talking about. There was no plan.

She just went.

When I talked to her by cell phone three days after she arrived on Aug. 6, she said the trip was so last minute, "we didn't even have a flashlight."

"The first night, we just sat in lawn chairs and watched the stars,'' she said.

As it happened, Sheehan managed to catch the news cycle exactly right. Everyone joined her in Crawford -- CNN, MSNBC, all the big papers. She told me her anti-war message had gotten attention "beyond my wildest dreams.''

But her friends know she would have been there even if no one was paying attention.

"When you look at her on TV, you can see that everything behind her is not as important as what she is doing right now,'' says a friend, Stephanie Fareday-Mannel. "I think about her every day. I pray for her. And I hope she can find something that will comfort her.''

C.W. Nevius' column appears Tuesday and Saturday in Bay Area and in East Bay Life on Fridays. E-mail him at


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It will be interesting to see what impact recent events are having on military recruitment when the August numbers come out.

I suspect that there's gonna be a lot more mothers standing over teenagers with threats of house arrest and other dire consequences if they even think of going near a recruiting office during the current administration's tenure.

The Wilmington Peace Meetup Group ( has really focused its attention on being "Pro-Active" with the school boards here to limit the amount of information and access military recruiters have to students.

Steve Lee, organizer of the Wilmington Peace Meetup group, actually made the front page of the New York Times owned "Wilmington Star-news" with this story. The New Hanover Schools, thanks to Peace Meetups efforts, now REQUIRE that the "Opt Out" forms be signed by a parent and returned. Last year, it was optional and many forms never even made it past the first available trashcan, let alone to the parents.

Our goal is to "reverse" the model so that a parent must sign an "Opt IN" form before the information is made available to recruiters, but we aren't quite there yet. :-)

I urge everyone to attack this part of the war support base and make it clear to the PNAC NEO CONs that our children are not their cannon fodder "serfs". "Starve & Contain the Beast."

"Ain't no Thelma here, man!!!"
- From Amazon Women on the Moon


Cindy Sheehan, YOUR cause is the noble cause. I admire your strength and bravery in the face of overwhelming grief. I now know some of the great sacrifices in terms of friends and family that you have had to make in order to do the right thing, the hard thing. Remain confident that you have made the right decision. In times of despair always know what a difference you have made and remember all of us who believe in you. My thoughts are with you as you care for your mother and hope that she may she be well again. Do not give up hope.

A special heart-felt thank you to each and every person who is at the ranch. Keep fighting the good fight and remember, no answer IS an answer. You are doing one amazing American woman proud.

Audrey Carlson

My daughter joined the Army National Guard Reserve for the same reason many children of middle income families go to college. She knew full well what she was doing and is willing to sacrafice her life to protect our country. We come from a long line of military family members. Over the last four years I have lived in a place of constant fear and all over my urging her to join the Guard. I never thought she would be deployed even though I knew that was a possibility, let alone we would invade Iraq? To add insult to injury, she was to report at 0700 on November 2nd....election day.

By reporting at this time it would be impossible for her to vote. I told her to call her armory and tell them she would be late because she was going to go and vote before I gave her to them.

She had two months to graduate from the police academy at our local college. She worked long and hard (3 years) to get to this point and was told the orders were coming from higher up and she couldn't be granted any extension. If she survives this awful war, she will have to start all over.

None of this matters to me...what is most important to me is I don't want to lose my baby for Bush's paybacks and greed. This country has stolen property from the First Americans (the Indians) through their greed. We took land from Mexico and then have the nerve to say we don't want the Mexicans to come here illegally? We stole this land from them. Now we are over in another country with the sole purpose to obtain control over their oil "The REAL MISSION"! Whatever happened to hunting down Bin Laden? Where did this all go wrong?

Other countries have weapons of mass distruction and we aren't invading them! Why? Because they don't have anything Bush wants to steal! Yes I'm an angry mother and a registered Republican! I didn't vote for him and don't support his greed for one second! I was never fooled by his BS! His goofy daughters are't serving in the war! He repeatedly ducked his responsibility to serve in the Guard!!!! How can he possibly care, nor understand the day to day fear I have. The word politian means "blood sucking liar." He certainly has lived up to this definition and I feel powerless to protect my daughter from his greed and lies!

He has yet to define "the Mission" because he can't admit that he is just another greedy SOB who wants what doesn't belong to him and is using our Military to get it!!!! Stay committed Cindy, I am with you in thoughts and prayers. I pray every day that I don't lose my daughter and join the sorrowful club no parent should ever have to belong to.

God be with you.

Bravo Rosemary, your words speak for all mothers and fathers whether their children are serving in the military or living in Iraq. We went into this war with a lie and we need to get out of this war by telling the truth.

God Bless You Rosemary and Cindy and most of all God Bless all of the children serving in the military!

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