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The face behind Bush vigil

San Francisco Chronicle
- C.W. Nevius

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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My heart goes out with you, Cindy. "Atta Girl" Keep it up

This is unbelievable!

"San Francisco Chronicle
- C.W. Nevius

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."

Shame on St. Mary's Catholic Church for allowing her near our youth!
After listening to her use "f*****g" over and over, I can't imagine she was anything close to a minister, but I know that both St. Mary's Catholic Church and Cindy Sheehan are f*****h!

To Valerie Overstreet:

Yeah, and how about Cheney's f*** word and Bush's flipping middle finger? Theirs are acceptable to the Conservatives, but Cindy's is not. Get real!!!

No doubt your concern about youth being exposed to profanity by Cindy necessarily extends to youths being exposed to pedophile priests. Let's also make sure those recruiters in our high schools aren't allowed to show pictures of shredded human bodies or anything else profane or obscene to our children. Then we can continue to pretend that profanity is out of bounds when we discuss the real reasons for the deaths of our soldiers such as Casey Sheehan.

Anyone who still doesnt get it; CINDY HAS GIVEN PEOPLE THEIR VOICE
AGAINST THE TERRORISM THAT REIGNS. You are either with the War Mongers that profit from the blood sweat and tears of the masses
or you are just downright out and out ignorant. If you are of the ignorant there may still be hope for you if you will open your eyes
ears and heart and read the truth. Yes there is a conspiracy of the elite versus the masses that has corrupted all governments. Papa Bush actually referred to the masses as OFU (One Fodder Unit). These people are evil from the getgo, or just plain mad. Grandpapa Bush was in league with Hitler. History continues to repeat itself, and the masses at the mercy of the Ruling Propagandists who are the only ones to profit from war is nothing new. WE NEED TO THANK GOD FOR CINDY SHEEHAN WHOSE GOOD HEART AND GREAT COURAGE SPEAK A LANGUAGE THAT EVIL UNDERSTANDS AS A THREAT TO THEIR LIES AND CRIMINAL ACTS. KEEP THE SPOTLIGHT ON THE "REAL EVIL-DOERS". Go to and order
"9/11 In-Plane Site"; a video documentary showing the TRUTH of 9/11
and the lengths these SLIMES will go to for excuse for war. IF YOU READ HISTORY, You will find Bin Laden was a friend of the US, went to school in California, worked with our CIA; the corruption is absolutely INSIDIOUS. Likely IT IS KNOWN EXACTLY WHERE BIN LADEN IS...
The SO CALLED HIJACKERS OF 9/11 are reported in the Plane Site documentary as alive and well...WATCH CNN at 8pm tonite for COLIN POWELLS discussion of the bogus intelligence for the war on Iraq.

The hope is that this may put to rest the lie that Mrs. Sheehan has been used by groups like MoveOn for their own ends, which is what George Will said today on This Week. As the article states, Mrs. Sheehan has been against the war at least since her son died, perhaps even when he joined the military in 2000. Mrs. Sheehan decided to come to Crawford, Tx. spontaneously, and the conservatives and far right wing pundits, such as O'Reilly, Limbaugh, Malkin, etc. are attempting to assign some nefarious motives for Mrs. Sheehan's presence outside Bush's residence, as if being against the war is something she should be ashamed of. But as Frank Rich says in today's N.Y. Times, this has become bigger than Cindy Sheehan and could lead to a groundswell of support culminating in a massive anti-war rally on Sept. 24, in Wash. D.C.

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