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Confronting Bush in Crawford:
Cindy Sheehan's challenge

August 19, 2005 | Page 2

CINDY BERINGER and ERIC RUDER report from Cindy Sheehan's antiwar vigil outside George W. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas.

WHEN CINDY Sheehan boarded the Veterans for Peace Impeachment Tour bus August 6 and headed for Crawford, Texas, she had no idea that the vigil she had begun planning a few days before would turn her into a national symbol of the growing discontent with the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Today, her face is on the front pages of newspapers across the country and the world. So is her message: Not one more U.S. soldier nor Iraqi citizen should die in a war for oil and occupation.

"Bush took something away from me that's irreplaceable," Sheehan said, squinting against the sweltering Texas sun on the first day of her vigil. "He planned a five-week vacation while we're in the middle of war, and I'm never going to be able to enjoy another vacation because he killed my only son. If he doesn't come out and talk to me in Crawford, I'll follow him to D.C. and camp out on his lawn there until he finds the integrity to talk to someone whose life he has ruined.

"Casey was murdered by Bush and his insane, arrogant, callous foreign policy. What did my son die for? Last week, Bush said my son died in a noble cause. And I want to ask him what that noble cause is."

Her voice cracking from the emotional load of bringing her antiwar crusade to the home turf of its architect, she continued: "Bush says that we have to stay the course in Iraq to honor my son's sacrifice. Why would I want one more broken-hearted mother in Iraq or in America because my son is dead? I don't want him to justify his killing and his murdering and his imperialistic foreign policies on my son's blood and my son's honor. I want him to honor my son by bringing the troops home immediately."

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ON THAT first day, Cindy and her supporters--which included 2003 Iraq war veterans Camilo Mejía, Alex Ryabov and Garett Reppenhagen, 1991 Gulf War veteran Dennis Kyne, several Vietnam-era vets and Amy Branham, another mother whose son was killed in the military--were thrilled to find that a caravan of 15 cars had formed to follow their bus up the road to Bush's ranch.

During the next week, many times that number turned up from all over the country to lend their support--bearing cases of bottled water, sandwiches, tents and a bottomless reservoir of excitement. They braved the relentless heat, surprise Texas electrical storms and aggressive fire ants. Those who couldn't come in person sent letters, flowers or checks. Some stayed and camped out; others signed the guest book and went on their way.

"Who knew?" Cindy began her speech to a rally on day eight. "Who knew that the beginning of the end of the war in Iraq was going to start in Crawford, Texas? Who knew that Americans would finally stand up and say we're tired of this shit. Bring the troops home!"

With Bush's approval rating of his handling of the war in Iraq plunging to 34 percent, the timing of Cindy's decision to challenge Bush in his own backyard couldn't have been better. She became a lightning rod for widespread anger at the war, capturing media headlines and favorable editorials in small-town newspapers and the New York Times alike.

Among antiwar activists, there was relief and enthusiasm that the movement had found a voice in the form of a 48-year-old woman from a small town in California--who has both the moral authority and the toughness to go up against all potential detractors.

The vigil quickly became a public relations nightmare for Bush. "If he invites her to talk," wrote the San Francisco Chronicle, "he further elevates her protest, potentially angers the other families of the more than 1,850 Americans who have died in Iraq, and provides Sheehan a greater forum to spread her anti-war views. If he ignores her, he risks appearing so callous that he doesn't have the time, or the inclination, to spend a few minutes of his vacation with a mother who lost her son as a direct consequence of the president's foreign policy decisions."

Sheehan's tent camp by the side of the road grew daily as August rolled on. Ann Wright, a former State Department diplomat who resigned in protest at the start of the Iraq war, occupies a nearby tent and directs logistics. Bill Mitchell, a Vietnam vet from California, sleeps on a cot nearby. His son, Sgt. Michael Mitchell, was killed in Iraq, too--his body transported home, like Casey Sheehan, in a flag-draped coffin.

In the middle of the second week, Cindy was relieved to be joined by Celeste Zappala, her partner in founding Gold Star Families for Peace, an antiwar organization made up of family members of those killed in Iraq. Zappala's son, Sgt. Sherwood Baker of the Pennsylvania National Guard, died in combat in 2004.

Members of Code Pink, a women's peace group, came to direct traffic, arrange interviews and keep the pressure on. In the area dubbed Camp Casey in honor of Cindy's son, Veterans for Peace members erected more than 800 crosses bearing the names of soldiers killed in Iraq, a traveling exhibit known as Arlington West.

Adding to the growing list of comparisons to Vietnam, older Texans were reminded of the antiwar protesters who camped across the Perdenales River from Lyndon Johnson's Texas ranch. Johnson never met with the protesters, according to an Austin newspaper, but he occasionally sent aides out to meet with them and take their petitions, which were promptly thrown in the trash.

Déjà vu. On August 11, Bush's motorcade rumbled past protesters en route to a fundraiser at the neighboring Broken Spoke Ranch. As the black SUVs rolled by, Cindy held a sign and a cross with her son's name on it. At the fundraiser, some 230 guests enjoyed a Texas-style barbecue--and donated $2 million to the Republican Party.

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TWO DAYS later, on short notice, several hundred people came to a rally that began in a football field in Crawford. Solidarity rallies were held in several towns and cities across the country, and more are scheduled in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, opponents of war came to Crawford from both coasts and lots of places in between. A Vietnam vet came with his wife from nearby Speegleville, a small ranching town close to Crawford with a similar reputation as a Republican stronghold. "This is just a desert Vietnam," he said.

Several came from nearby Killeen, Texas, home of Fort Hood, the Army post that has sent so many to Iraq. Tammara Rosenleaf of Helena, Mont., volunteered to pass out information to people streaming into the rally site at the football field. Her husband will leave Fort Hood for Iraq in November. Tammara said her husband opposed the war, but would do his job. "A job that asks you to die for a lie is not a job anyone should have to take," she said.

Linda and Phil Waist of Georgia have three sons and two grandchildren who have served extended and multiple tours in Iraq--a total of 57 months with another 36 to go. "Those who come back intact, their lives, their families' lives are changed forever," Phil Waist said. He continued angrily, "The right-wing media whores are spinning--spinning so hard they're going to screw themselves right down to hell. Bring the troops home now."

Another veteran of Bush's war talked about "the children killed by my mortar rounds." "If you shoot a man in America, that man would be a criminal," he said. "That's what George Bush is doing to our soldiers. The war holds on to you. You have to do something to heal the wounds."

For many of those sharing the platform or visiting Camp Casey, speaking out and protesting is the something that heals.

After the rally in the stadium, people piled into vehicles to form a slow and winding caravan to meet with Cindy and hear her speak. Cars, trucks and vans lined the road outside the tent camp for miles in either direction--even though police threatened to tow any vehicle with even a sliver of a wheel touching the asphalt. Families carried collages of photographs of soldiers through the crowd while helicopters grazed the treetops threateningly.

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GEORGE BUSH has said that Sheehan has every right as an American to believe and say whatever she wants, and a couple fawning pundits praised Bush for not trying to discredit her. But that hasn't stopped other right-wing hacks from trying to whip up a frenzy against Cindy.

A radio talk-show host from Dallas brought a group of the faithful to Crawford to counter-protest. Their signs accused Sheehan of lowering troop morale and "aiding the enemy."

But all those who came to support Cindy Sheehan sensed that something special is happening--finally--in this dusty Texas town. As Cindy spoke, she gave them hope and energy. "We have the power to change things," she said. "Congress won't. The media won't. We're going to hold Bush accountable. We're gonna win!"

Sheehan vowed to remain at her camp until September 1. Then she will follow Bush to Washington, D.C.--and stay until he brings the troops home.

When Bush says that it's necessary to honor the fallen by staying the course, Cindy says that she feels like Bush is taunting her. It's the protesters who will "stay the course," Cindy said. "We will complete the mission. We started it, and we're going to finish it."

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