Public mourning at president's ranch for a son
"I CAN'T BE STOPPED': In grief, Cindy Sheehan turned into an antiwar protester and her vigil sparked a flash point in a nation's debate on Iraq.
Published August 14, 2005
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 antiwar movement, there was a time when Cindy Sheehan's life was, by all appearances, perfectly 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 a meeting with President Bush. Sheehan said she found him to be a "man of faith," but she also said later that he seemed "totally disconnected from humanity and reality." And she said that when she later heard him speak of soldiers' deaths as "noble," she wanted to do something.
"The shock has worn off and deep anger has set in," she said.
Sheehan co-founded an antiwar organization and began talking, demonstrating, speaking at a congressional hearing. She got a Web site, a public relations assistant - financed by an antiwar group - an entourage of peace activists and a speaking tour.
But 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, saying she wanted to talk to the president.
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 vigil has captured attention for the antiwar movement. Over the past week she appeared on every major television and radio network and in newspapers around the world.
However, her actions have raised questions about her motives. Sheehan is a lifelong Democrat. Critics say she is a pawn of the left wing. Some 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 say they're proud of what she's doing.
Dozens of people have joined her and others have sent flowers and food. Activists in San Francisco rallied on her behalf Friday; others planned to gather Monday in New York's Union Square.
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 Sheehan is wrong on Iraq, Bush said. "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," the president said.
Sheehan said until her son died, she had 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 Persian 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, said 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," Miller said.
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 said she will 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."