Gold stars in the heart of Texas

Cindy Sheehan compelled her supporters and her detractors to action

BAEZ BUZZ <br>Cindy Sheehan, seated, joins Joan Baez on stage at Camp Casey in Crawford Texas.

Cindy Sheehan, seated, joins Joan Baez on stage at Camp Casey in Crawford Texas.

Photo By Ryan Rose

They came because they had to. With two wars already raging overseas, America faces a new conflict within its borders. Strangers traveling from all directions came to fight. Bringing protest chants and homemade signs, they came from Birmingham, San Francisco, New York City, Detroit, Visalia, Sacramento and New Orleans—name a state, and there was a delegation.

They all said the same thing: They came because they had to. All alluded to an almost religious compulsion. Call it a political revival—a sort of baptism in the river of world affairs.

At the forefront of this battle was Cindy Sheehan, a Vacaville woman who lost her 24-year-old son, Casey, to Iraqi insurgents in 2004. Sheehan, co-founder of Gold Star Families for Peace, took her grief (and a question) to Crawford, Texas, where President George W. Bush vacations at his private ranch. There, on the side of the road, Sheehan begged to know the “noble cause” for which her son had died.

The move inspired thousands—many compelled to meet her. Cars filled Crawford, a town with a population of 750.

Pat Manning, a Sheehan supporter, cut short her family vacation to come. Along with her husband, daughter Eileen and two grandchildren, the California native headed straight to Crawford in an RV. Their plan was to stay for a few days; they were there two weeks.

“I had to come because we were on vacation, and I thought of this woman, sitting in a ditch, in the dirt there, and I thought I had to come to tell her she was so brave—so brave for speaking the truth,” Manning said. “It’s finally happening, I think. It’s our chance to turn the tide.”

And as Sheehan pulled in supporters from the four corners of the nation, so she garnered the attention of detractors.

Hundreds found a home in Crawford—there to support President Bush, to defend the current White House administration and to praise the troops and their mission in Iraq.

“This is just something we felt we had to do. We do support our president, and we speak about it—to friends, to co-workers. We are here to support our president,” said Renee Prater of Fort Worth, Texas. “I think it is important to be here now, with all the media spotlight—there are other viewpoints other than hers.”

And so, Crawford became a new stage in a battle that, until recently, was fought only on message blogs and in e-mails and angry calls to radio stations.

“I think the world was waiting for a spark, and it was Cindy Sheehan,” said Janice Hurley, a Dallas resident and Sheehan supporter.

Sheehan’s media persona is larger than life: Her image has appeared across the nation, plastered on T-shirts, commercials, coffee mugs and posters. Her face has quickly become the logo for the anti-war movement. Since laying down roots in Crawford, Texas, the Vacaville resident has drawn hundreds of followers and a wave of critics.

Normal, plain and tall, she sweats and cries and has rough hands. This ultra-normal appearance is disarming—she wears little if any makeup, she has a simple part in her hair, and all of her clothes look like they’re from Old Navy. She has a tiny tattoo (in honor of her son) on her left ankle.

Sheehan seemed to connect with the travelers immediately, emotionally—regardless of background, color or creed. One minute she was speaking with a man recently home from the war, and the next embracing a young woman, suddenly overcome with tears, who drove days to see her.

The first stop for all Sheehan supporters was the Crawford Peace House, a small domicile that served as the nerve center of the “Camp Casey” operation. Hundreds of visitors turned volunteers operated from within the tiny home, drinking warm Gatorade while welcoming newcomers to the camp.

Since Sheehan’s appearance in Texas, the Crawford Peace House buzzed with activity—reminiscent of the way newsrooms once were and candidate headquarters always have been. Karen Bernal of Sacramento for Democracy hauled water to and from moving trucks. In what was once a bedroom, a crowd of women stood, taking phone calls, coordinating interviews and giving directions. In the air-conditioned family room, a map of the United States hung, dotted with red, white and blue tacks marking where visitors from across the country had come from. Everyone inside talked, laughed and embraced while the smell of freshly cooked instant ramen emanated from the kitchen. The smell mingled with body odor, a result of Texas’ stifling humidity and campers’ limited bathing facilities.

The Crawford Peace House stank, but politics is a dirty business, and ironically, the smelly little home was the cleanest place most of the Sheehan supporters would see.

Unbeknownst to many visitors on both sides, there were two Camp Caseys. Casey Two was another hub for visitors. Situated on land donated by Bush neighbor Fred Mattlage (whose cousin Larry gained national attention for firing his gun near war protesters), Casey Two had the energy of an outdoor concert. Under a large white tent, war protesters mingled and sweat. Volunteers prepared food (usually barbecue), and assorted musical acts (among them, folk singer Joan Baez) played onstage. Artwork and signs hung everywhere.

Casey One was different. There, veterans of various wars dug in, camped in the dirt. It was impossible to keep anything clean there—especially food—and fire ants found any flesh left exposed. Positioned along a thin ribbon of country road, the city of tents filled an irrigation ditch. Under canvas tarps, Sheehan’s supporters gathered to sing, hold camp meetings, talk of politics and try to keep their minds off the heat. It was there that the two sides met.

Across from the Crawford Peace House, Bush supporters created a makeshift headquarters outside the local general store, the Yellow Rose. Amid the obligatory “support the troops” poster was a banner: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

The famous quote from British statesman Edmund Burke could serve as the motto for either side.

Signs were everywhere—some calling for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq while others insisted the United States finish its mission. Still others were more direct, saying, “The first rule of war: fine men die. The second rule of war: No way to avoid the first.” Sheehan supporters held pictures of fallen soldiers. Their signs asked for peace.

Many messages were benign, and some more radical. A Bush supporter’s sign: “Prove you’re a Christian, Cindy.” An anti-war sign: “Send in the Bush Twins.”

Matching point for point, Bush supporters placed signs in support of the president along the same roads where Sheehan’s group erected small white crosses in remembrance of fallen troops. And in the last weeks of the conflict, political groups organized the travel for hundreds to meet in Crawford; for every Veteran for Peace, a Protest Warrior was there on the scene.

“Bush does have a lot of supporters out here, and I think we represent the majority of the United States,” said Fort Worth resident Joann Tharp. “This isn’t about Cindy or Casey anymore—it’s all an agenda.”

Although much of the pro-Bush crowd was local (from Texas), Move America Forward organized a major caravan to Crawford to coincide with the final week of Sheehan’s protest. The California-based nonprofit, led by San Francisco radio personality Melanie Morgan, spent a week traveling to Texas, stopping in major cities and making media appearances. According to Morgan, a rally in Dallas drew a crowd of thousands.

“There are many who are offended by what is taking place here,” she said.

Parents on the Move America Forward tour were devastated to find their children’s names on the white crosses around Camp Casey One.

“People are crying—these are gold-star families, they have lost their sons and daughters—and several of them have found their sons’ and daughters’ names and removed them from the crosses,” Morgan said. “They are distraught. … It’s a very deeply moving experience … and all you can do is hug and cry with them.”

Yet, as some parents denounced war protesters for the use of their dead children’s names, others found the support of Bush abhorrent. Bill Mitchell, an Atascadero resident and a co-founder of Gold Star Families for Peace, lost his son Mike the same day Casey Sheehan died.

For Mitchell, the loss of his son, and others, deserves discourse.

“At least we are trying to start a dialogue where there was none before,” he said.

But, with that discourse, Mitchell demands respect. While shuttling people between camps, Mitchell took calls from a representative of Geraldo Rivera, who had asked the California man to appear on his Fox News Channel show—alongside a gold-star mother who supports the war. Mitchell agreed but adamantly demanded that Rivera not pit the two against one another.

“I’m not going to change her mind, and I’m pretty sure she is not going to change my mind,” he said. “If they pit us against one another, I’m walking. I hate that.”

With her Crawford protest over, Sheehan is gearing up for her next fight—taking her battle to Washington, D.C.

She has a new question now: “When is America going to care? When is America going to care about us and our children?”

Buses have been arranged to take war protesters on to D.C., and many plan to go. As for Move America Forward, Morgan said her group has no plans to follow.