August 13, 2005 2:41 PM EDT
VACAVILLE, Calif. - Before her son was killed in Iraq, before she began a peace vigil outside President Bush's Texas ranch, before she became an icon of the anti-war movement and the face of grieving mothers, there was a time when Cindy Sheehan's life was, by all appearances, incredibly normal.
She grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, and married her high school sweetheart, Patrick Sheehan. They had four babies, one almost every other year. They drove their growing clan in a huge, yellow station wagon nicknamed the "BananaMobile." She volunteered at a Vacaville church and later, as the children grew, she worked there.
Normal life ended for Cindy Sheehan in April 2004, when her oldest son Casey, 24, a father of twin girls, was killed in Iraq.
First, she says, "I was a Mom in deep shock and deep grief."
Then, two months later, came what she considered to be a disturbingly placid
meeting with President Bush. While she found him to be a "man of faith," she
also said later that he seemed "totally disconnected from humanity and
reality." And when she later heard him speak of soldiers' deaths as "noble,"
Sheehan felt she had to do something.
"The shock has worn off and deep anger has set in," she said.
Sheehan co-founded an anti-war organization and began talking, demonstrating,
speaking at a congressional hearing. She got a Web site, a public relations
assistant (financed by an anti-war group), an entourage of peace activists and
a speaking tour.
But while her message was strong and widely disseminated, she didn't become
world famous until about a week ago when, after speaking at the annual
Veterans For Peace national conference in Dallas, she took a bus to Crawford,
Texas, site of Bush's ranch, to have a word with her president.
For the record, here's what she said she wants to tell him: "I would say,
'What is the noble cause my son died for?' And I would say if the cause is so
noble has he encouraged his daughters to enlist? And I would be asking him to
quit using Casey's sacrifice to justify continued killing, and to use Casey's
sacrifice to promote peace."
Sheehan's peaceful vigil, her unstoppable anguish, her gentle way of speaking,
have captured attention for an anti-war movement that until now hasn't had
much of a leader. Over the past week she appeared on every major television
and radio network and in newspapers around the world.
Critics have started calling her a pawn of the left-wing. Some conservative
organizations, talk show hosts and even some of her own extended family accuse
her of shifting her position and say she is lowering troop morale.
"To be perfectly honest, I think it is disgraceful," said bookkeeper Diana
Kraft of Vacaville, whose son is in the Navy. "I don't know the loss she's
feeling to lose a son because, thank goodness, I haven't had that, but we're
in this war and we have to support the troops."
Other friends, neighbors and church members argue that she is a hero, and say
they're proud of what she's doing.
Dozens of people have joined her and others have sent flowers and food. Other
"Camp Casey" demonstrations and vigils are springing up around the country,
with signs calling on Bush to "Talk To Cindy." Activists in San Francisco
rallied on her behalf Friday; others planned to gather Monday in New York's
Bush acknowledged her on Thursday, telling reporters at his ranch that "she
has every right in the world to say what she believes. This is America. She
has a right to her position."
But Bush said Sheehan is wrong on Iraq: "I thought long and hard about her
position. I've heard her position from others, which is: Get out of Iraq now.
And 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."
Sheehan, a lifelong Democrat, said that until her son died, she'd never spoken
out about her views. She was too young during the Vietnam War - "I only saw it
on the news and I thought it was horrible," she said. She didn't agree with
the first Gulf War, but only talked about it with friends and classmates.
As a child in Bellflower, about 20 miles south of Los Angeles, Sheehan was
opinionated, but not outspoken, says her sister, Dede Miller. She was enrolled
in programs for gifted students.
She married her first serious boyfriend, Patrick, whom she met when she was
17. They soon had Casey, followed by Carly, Andy and Jane.
"She was an earth mother, a very devoted mom," said Miller.
In 1993, the family moved to Vacaville, midway between San Francisco and
Sacramento, where Patrick worked as a sales representative.
The stress of Casey's death prompted Sheehan and her husband to separate, she
Sheehan has vowed to remain in Texas through Bush's August vacation, unless he
meets with her.
"My whole family would rather I was home more than gone," she said. "Some
people have tried to discourage me from doing what I'm doing but I can't be
discouraged, I can't be stopped because I know what I'm doing is so important.
It's a matter of life or death."