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 firstname.lastname@example.org .
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