When Cindy Sheehan came to Fayetteville March 20 to address an anti-war rally, the grieving mother who lost a son in the Iraq war received little fanfare. Today, Sheehan’s face is recognized around the world as the mother who has been encamped outside of George W. Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch since Aug. 6, waiting for the commander-in-chief to explain to her why her son had to die.
As U.S. public opinion against the war catches up with world public opinion, Sheehan may be remembered in history as the mother who finally turned the tide against Bush and the neocons who have called the Iraq war a noble cause.
Sheehan, who is already being referred to as the Rosa Parks of the peace movement, has gone to Crawford at a moment in time when Americans finally seem to be seriously questioning Bush’s motives for launching a war with no end in sight. Her defiant presence in the hot Texas sun has become a daily reminder of the real cost of this war in lives lost.
In an interview with the Independent on Sunday, Sheehan says she doesn’t expect Bush to make an appearance at what’s been dubbed “Camp Casey” after her son, U.S. Army Specialist Casey Sheehan, who was killed in action in Sadr City on April 4, 2004.
Bush “knows I’m going to ask him some hard questions and demand the truth from him,” says Sheehan, who has also publicly called for Bush to encourage his own young daughters to join the service and go to war.
“I think that people who have the authority to send our children to war should have their own children in war or themselves,” she says. “Why should we encourage our children to join? That’s what I want to ask George Bush. ‘If it’s such a noble cause, why don’t you encourage your own children to go off and fight?’
“I know that this war is wrong. I know that we should have never invaded in the first place. I know that we shouldn’t be occupying a country that was no threat to the United States of America. People are dying every day because of these mistakes, and I believe that that is so wrong. And I can’t bring my son back no matter how hard I try, and George Bush can’t bring him back no matter how hard he tries, but what we can do is save other families from going through what we’re going through.”
Women like Sheehan and Celeste Zappala, another mother who has gone to Camp Casey, have the right to ask hard questions about why their young sons had to die in the Iraqi war.
Sheehan, 48, and Zappala, 58, have been joined in Crawford by dozens more peace activists, including other family members of dead soldiers. Sheehan says she plans to maintain her vigil until Bush agrees to meet with her. Zappala had to head back to her Pennsylvania home after spending several days with Sheehan, but says she may return.
In a telephone interview from Camp Casey, Zappala says she joined the vigil to honor her son, Sherwood Baker, a National Guard soldier who was killed in a Baghdad explosion on April 26, 2004.
As she was being interviewed on the afternoon of Aug. 12, Zappala, who also was in Fayetteville last March, noticed Bush’s motorcade approaching with helicopters buzzing overhead. Seconds later, the crowd started chanting, “Talk to us. Talk to us” as the motorcade passed without stopping.
Zappala said she feels “great solidarity” to be among people “united by our grief” who understand what she’s been through.
“We decided that since we had kind of a unique voice, that it would make sense to try to speak as people who had lost their children.”
Sheehan, a mother of four who converted to Catholicism at age 28, was once a youth minister at a Catholic parish in Vacaville, Calif. Sheehan says she disagrees with those who would call George Bush pro-life because of his opposition to abortion.
“I don’t think that George Bush is pro-life,” she says. “I think he is very pro-birth, but after birth, he doesn’t care about the people he brings into the world at all, and he doesn’t mind killing tens of thousands of innocent people in Iraq.”
Sheehan has faced many attacks from the right since she began her Crawford vigil. Bill O’Reilly criticized her on his Fox News television show, accusing her of treason and calling her a victim of “far left elements” who are exploiting her for their own purposes. Sheehan refused to appear on the show.
“What I’ve done is make myself the sacrificial lamb of this peace movement, and people are maligning me and they’re smearing me and they’re lying about me and they’re trying to discredit me when they should be trying to discredit the lies that George Bush tells,” Sheehan says. “But I’m willing to do it if it would bring our kids home anytime sooner than they were supposed to come home.”
Sheehan says she tried to talk Casey out of joining the Army, but he said, “Mom, I don’t want to go, but I have to go. It’s my duty and my buddies are going.”
She says she believes Casey is watching over her and “he’s helping me. I believe that all of the angels and saints that have been killed in this immoral, illegal war are helping us. We just feel their spirits, and we feel the power and the strength they’re giving us, because this is hard. This is overwhelming. This is more than one person should have to bear.”
Sheehan says plans are in the works to move the peace encampment to Washington, D.C., after Bush’s vacation ends. And she says Bush is feeling the heat.
“A lot of people are putting pressure on him,” she says. “I think if he was smart he would have met with me the first day,”
Both Sheehan and Zappala are members of Gold Star Families for Peace, a group that includes the survivors of soldiers killed in Iraq.
Zappala, who is a member of First United Methodist Church in Germantown, Pa., has two other adult children. Zappala says her son “became the 720th American soldier to die in the colossal miscalculation called the war in Iraq. When we buried Sherwood in Wilkes Barre on May 4, , I knelt beside his casket, and I vowed to him, ‘I will not be quiet,’ and with God’s help I will not be broken. I will speak the truth for him. And we all know the truth, don’t we–this war is a disaster.”
Since Sherwood’s death, Zappala says she has “been on the path that I never wanted to be on, but here I am.”
Like the words in the hymn “Here I am Lord,” Zappala says she is offering up her work for peace to God. “Here I am, use me if I can be of service. If it helps them change their hearts, if it upholds the cause of peace, I’m grateful for the possibility to do that.”