SAN FRANCISCO - He was an altar boy, an Eagle Scout, a church youth group leader. That is what people remember about Casey Sheehan, the 24-year-old soldier whose death in Iraq has become a flashpoint for debate about the war since his mother began staging a peace vigil outside the president's ranch in Texas.
Among family and friends - not to mention TV pundits, Internet bloggers and newspaper columnists - opinions vary about Cindy Sheehan's demand to meet with the president to talk about why the U.S. went to war. Like others, they struggle with whether her determination to bring the war home honors or diminishes his choice to join the Army.
But those who knew the young man she so publicly mourns agree that if anyone is an appropriate face for the war's more than 1,800 U.S. deaths, it is Casey. He had a gentle but firm commitment to family, church and country, re-enlisting after the war started and volunteering for the rescue mission in which he and six others were killed last year.
"Casey was quiet, but he loved to serve and it didn't matter whether it was working in the kitchen, backstage or up front," recalled Steve Tholcke, who directs a Catholic youth camp where Sheehan worked as a counselor and organized youth retreats. "If something needed to be done, Casey was there to do it."
Born on Memorial Day, Casey Austin Sheehan was the first of Cindy and Patrick Sheehan's four children. In an essay she wrote for the liberal online magazine Truthout this year, Cindy Sheehan described Casey's early years as a typically suburban experience. He loved Nintendo, G.I. Joes, watching Wrestlemania and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"We did everything together. Even when one of us would want a frozen yogurt, we would all pile into 'Vanna White,' our white Chevy Astro Van," she wrote. "There was no such thing as one of us going and bring yogurt home for everybody. We all just went."
The Sheehans were active members of their Roman Catholic churches, first in the Southern California community of Norwalk, and then in Vacaville, the town halfway between Sacramento and San Francisco where they moved when Casey was 14.
Stefanie Fereday-Mannel, a fellow member of St. Mary's Church in Vacaville, recalls how close the family was, and how Casey shared his mother's deep faith and commitment to the church, even as a teenager. When Cindy Sheehan worked as a youth minister, Casey helped found the church's youth group and remained active even after graduating from high school.
"At some point church can be not the cool thing to do, and I remember always admiring Casey for being so dedicated to church as a young person," Fereday-Mannel said. "He didn't really care what people said or thought. He had very strong values about his family and church."
Before he graduated from Vacaville High School in 1997, Casey Sheehan acted in school plays. When he started attending Solano Community College, he gravitated toward the theater department, but also wrote entertainment articles for the school newspaper, The Tempest. Faculty adviser Mary Mazzocco said she was suprised when her drama critic announced he had joined the Army in 2000.
"He was so sweet and so shy and so quiet, you had a hard time seeing him as a soldier," Mazzocco said. "But he really did get into it. The last time I saw him on campus he was in his uniform and very proud of it and very proud to have made it through basic training."
His decision to sign up surprised his family as well. One night he came home after running some errands and "announced that we were looking at the newest recruit in the U.S. Army," Patrick Sheehan recalled a few days after Casey's death.
Sheehan had dreams of working as an Army chaplain's assistant, but wound up working as a mechanic. His division, the First Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood, Tex., was sent to Iraq in March 2004. The last time his parents spoke to him he was on his way to attend Mass before getting ready to convoy into Baghdad.
"On April 4, Palm Sunday, we got the word that Casey had been killed in an ambush," Cindy Sheehan wrote in her essay. "The first chance he got, my brave, wonderful, faithful, sweet, gentle and kind boy volunteered for a rescue mission ... Casey and 20 of his buddies were sent into a raging insurgent uprising to rescue wounded soldiers. Only 13 of them returned."
Since his death, Casey Sheehan has been honored in quiet ways. His old Boy Scout troop created an award in his honor. The chapel at Fort Hood started a new Knights of Columbus chapter that was named the "Spc. Casey Austin Sheehan Council."
In Crawford, a different sort of memorial to his life is unfolding at the makeshift campsite of war protesters who have joined his mother's mission.
"I think he definitely is one of those people who lived his life through a higher calling," observed Allison Corrington, 18, a Sheehan family friend. "He knew there was something big he was supposed to be a part of and definitely worked his way to his goals." Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.