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.
Demand for answers
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 Union Square.
Tensions flared Saturday at the protest site outside Bush’s ranch, with one heated exchange between a Bush supporter and a veteran who opposes the war in Iraq. When the veteran shouted about his war experiences and yelled, “I earned the right to be here!” several of his fellow protesters pulled him away as he sobbed and his knees buckled.
Bush acknowledged Sheehan 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.
'Very devoted mom'
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 said.
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.”