Cindy Sheehan says she’s tried to keep the focus of her protest on the immorality of the war in Iraq, but she’s found this month that it’s difficult to keep the spotlight off herself.
“I am not the issue,” she said on her Web blog. “The issue is a disastrous war that’s killing our sons and daughters and making our country less secure. They attack me because they can no longer defend this war.”
The 48-year-old housewife and former youth minister at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in quiet and conservative Vacaville, Calif., isn’t new to the fight. Three months after son Casey, her first-born, was killed in an ambush in Baghdad on April 4, 2004, Sheehan was transformed into a militant grieving mother demanding answers.
Members of the anti-war movement say they’re pleased that their questions about the war in Iraq are getting an audience, although they admit they are mystified why Sheehan’s anguish blossomed into international headlines this summer since she had been so active trying to get attention before.
“I think Sheehan personifies the pain a lot of families are feeling because of the number of deaths and injuries in Iraq _ and it’s real pain,” said Tom Kiley, an aide to Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who represents the Vacaville area. “She’s definitely tapping a nerve.”
In the last year, Sheehan has appeared on ABC’s “Nightline,” taken a bus tour to churches in New York, Chicago, Indianapolis, Lexington, Ky., Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsburgh. Sheehan, who has another son and two daughters, testified before a special congressional hearing called by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. And in January, she launched the nonprofit group Gold Star Families for Peace, of which she is president.
But it wasn’t until she set up “Camp Casey” at the front gate of President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, this month that Sheehan vaulted into headlines around the world, bringing a torrent of criticism from conservatives like Rush Limbaugh.
“Her story is nothing more than forged documents. There’s nothing about it that’s real, including the mainstream media’s glomming onto it. It’s not real. … It’s the latest effort made by the coordinated left,” Limbaugh said on his radio show.
There’s ample proof that Sheehan’s story is true: It’s a story she’s repeated on Internet sites and in e-mails for the last year, and in letters sent to the White House urging Bush to withdraw troops from Iraq. She said Bush misled America by launching the war to destroy weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist and is making America less secure by continuing the war.
“We’re watching you very carefully, and we’re going to do everything in our power to have you impeached for misleading the American people,” she told Bush in a letter. “Beating a political stake in your black heart will be the fulfillment of my life.”
Until Casey was killed, Sheehan lived a relatively anonymous life. With her children and husband Pat, she lived in a modest home in Vacaville bought last year for $280,000. She worked first as a volunteer at St. Mary’s Catholic Church near her home, then a youth minister.
Wolf Corrington, a Persian Gulf veteran who knew Casey Sheehan as a youth, helped coordinate his funeral at St. Mary’s last year. He said he doesn’t question Cindy Sheehan’s right to protest. But Corrington, the commander of Vacaville’s Veterans of Foreign Wars post, openly wonders whether Casey would have agreed with her.
“It’s her American right, and she can knock herself out and speak her mind,” said Corrington. But he noted that Casey Sheehan was not forced into the Army or drafted, but volunteered.
“It was a natural progression in Casey’s life. She raised her son to serve others, and he was an altar boy, a youth volunteer and an Eagle Scout serving others. Military service was a progression _ that was his nature,” he said.
Corrington said that no one can know what Sheehan’s 24-year-old son would feel about the war today, “but all I do know is that he volunteered to serve, he re-enlisted, he volunteered for the mission, so he must have believed in his job.”
The international attention given Sheehan’s protest has sparked a backlash in Vacaville, home to many military retirees who worked at nearby Travis Air Force Base and the location of two state prisons.
Diane Barney, editor of the Vacaville Reporter, said there’s been a passionate debate in the newspaper over her activities. One recent peace vigil drew 160 people _ 80 supporting Sheehan and 80 opposed. She said a previous demonstration was just as equally divided.
“The story really took off when Mrs. Sheehan decided to camp out in Crawford. Her story was always compelling, but it was her action that placed her in the national spotlight,” Barney said in an e-mail.
The Reporter tried to conduct an Internet poll to gauge reader opinion, but stopped after national Internet sites sent their readers to flood the newspaper’s site. More than 93,000 votes were cast, just shy of Vacaville’s 94,000 population, with 59 percent supporting Sheehan.
Her protest has also divided her family, with Cherie Quartarolo _ Cindy Sheehan’s sister-in-law and godmother to Casey _ insisting that not everyone in the family supports her protest. Sheehan’s husband filed divorce papers in the midst of her Crawford protest, something Sheehan insisted had been in the works for a while. The two had been high-school sweethearts in Bellflower, Calif., where she was born.
Anti-war activists say Sheehan is only expressing the growing public discontent against the war in Iraq, which is reflected in national polls where 58 percent of those asked say they are in opposition.
“I think she’s totally real,” said Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia.
Waskow recalled Sheehan’s appearance last April at the Riverside Baptist Church in New York, commemorating the April 4, 1967, speech given there by the Rev. Martin Luther King. Coincidentally, it was the first anniversary of Casey’s death, and Waskow said Sheehan’s address was both courageous and moving.
“I’ve seen her blossom,” he said. “She’s given a focus to a vague, but real and very much growing movement of disgust for the war. It’s been bubbling for months.”
Waskow, who has participated in the Crawford protests, said Bush’s decision to break off from his vacation to counter Sheehan’s protests clearly demonstrates her impact. Sheehan, who met with Bush last year, says she wants to ask the president to explain why the war in Iraq is “a noble cause,” and whether he would send his daughters Jenna and Barbara to fight there.
“One of the classic religious acts is to face the king face-to-face and say, ‘You are wrong,’ ” he said.
David Cortright, founder of the Win Without War Coalition and a University of Notre Dame professor, said Sheehan re-energized a peace movement that was left in the doldrums after Bush’s re-election.
“I have the impression she’s under inhuman pressure. She’s just a mom,” he said. “She’s done an amazingly good job.”
Cortright said he feels there’s more to the Sheehan phenomena than just an August story when not much else is going on, and he said the White House and its defenders haven’t come up with a good response to her anguish over why her son died.
“You see the drip, drip, drip of casualties every day where I live in Indiana, and there’s a cumulative effect,” he said.
(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)SHNS.com.)