Sunday, August 06, 2006

TRIBUNE PROFILE: CINDY SHEEHAN - In losing son, she inspired a movement

TRIBUNE PROFILE: CINDY SHEEHAN - In losing son, she inspired a movement

Her relentless activism against the Iraq war has made her a force on the national scene even as it has brought condemnation from her relatives

By Ray Quintanilla
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
Published August 6, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Cindy Sheehan looks tired as she sits down to lead a handful of demonstrators outside the Iraqi Embassy on a recent afternoon. It has been a long year for the anti-war activist who just completed a whirlwind tour of speaking engagements across Italy.

Then the shouts of "U.S. out of Iraq!" begin, and her face brightens and swells with pride, like a mother who has given birth to a political movement.

A few feet away, there's a flurry of activity offering a glimpse into how a once-obscure Catholic youth minister has become the public face of the U.S. anti-war movement. "Cindy is protesting," one of her assistants says into a cell phone while clutching a thick yellow almanac of media contacts. "I can get you a minute."

As Sheehan prepares to return to Crawford, Texas, on Sunday, renewing a round of protests that thrust her into the national spotlight a year ago, the story of her rise to notoriety from a ditch outside President Bush's ranch is peppered with joy and pain.

She has become a household name, yet her once-strong family ties are in ruins. Her work has become a 24-hour-a-day obsession, generating praise from around the world, yet it also brought condemnation--even death threats--from opponents who suggest her constant harangue has made her a bit of a political gadfly. Others say it has served to dilute her message.

"They [opponents] have been trying to get me for a long time," Sheehan, 49, said in an interview, reflecting on her work since her son Casey died two years ago while serving in Iraq.

"I raised four kids in six years. If they think they are going to ruffle my feathers, they are mistaken."

What's clear, however, is the education of Cindy Sheehan has taken her around the world. It has landed her phone number on the speed dial of national radio and television shows. It has won her the kinship of celebrities such as Susan Sarandon and the support of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Her writings have been turned into a play called "Peace Mom" that opened in London.

But there are signs Sheehan is not the same person who stumbled into the national limelight last year. In addition to an aide who handles her media, she now has an agent who arranges paid lectures--most of them a platform to speak out against the war.

An anti-war book is slated for release next month, and she recently purchased 5 acres of land in Crawford, Texas, to ensure protests outside Bush's ranch continue. Sheehan used a portion of her son's life insurance funds to buy the land, the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram reported.

Sheehan turns circumspect when asked to share the financial details of her work, such as who pays for the dozens of hotel rooms, airline tickets and meals for her and her sister Dede Miller--who often travels with her.

"Supporters," she answers. And, she pays for some of it. "My expenses are low," Sheehan adds.

Still, her work has come with a costly emotional price tag.

Fiery rhetoric

Sheehan's fiery rhetoric and inflammatory attacks on the president have sent once-close friends running for cover. She has referred to Bush as a "terrorist" and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as an "angel of death."

Sheehan's 28-year marriage is over.

"I take deep breaths and be true to my heart," she explained one afternoon while pausing to reflect on her personal journey.

What has been most painful, she added, was the day family members began condemning her anti-war activities.

"Out of everything, that hurt me the most," she explained. "After 31 years of being in the family, I thought they would support me. They totally disowned me and chose George Bush over murder."

John Tierney, author of the book "The Politics of Peace: What's Behind the Anti-War Movement?," said Sheehan is not only an effective advocate for the anti-war cause, she has brought a "mother's touch" to a fight that tends to be difficult for average Americans to grasp.

The woman who ignites strong emotions among those on both sides of the war in Iraq was raised in Bellflower, Calif., a community near Los Angeles. She married her high school sweetheart, Patrick Sheehan, in 1977.

In 1993, the couple and their four children moved to Vacaville, a middle-class city in northern California of sprawling subdivisions and good schools.

While living there, Sheehan served as a youth minister at St. Mary's Catholic Church. She was terminated, Sheehan said, after a dispute with a priest.

In a move that surprised his family, Casey Sheehan enlisted in the Army in spring of 2000--though not to fight on the front lines. A religious man, Casey wanted to become a chaplain's assistant, helping to minister to American troops.

Instead, his family said, Casey became a mechanic because military officials told him it was where they needed him.

About the time of the invasion of Iraq, Casey re-enlisted. On April 4, 2004, he and eight other U.S. soldiers were killed in fighting in Baghdad.

For the next year, a troubled Cindy Sheehan struggled to make sense of her son's death, often asking questions about the propriety of the war. During her son's visitation, Sheehan said she was so distraught, she couldn't view his body.

Non-profit group formed

After months of contemplation, she arrived in Crawford in early August 2005. These views, she said, were in her heart: "People who still support this war have blood on their hands. It was not right to begin with. It's not right now."

To keep supporting it, she added, is to condone the killing of innocent people.

In Crawford, she stood in a ditch as the media captured her demanding a meeting with Bush, who was vacationing at his ranch a few miles away.

On Aug. 11, 2005, papers were filed to create the California-based Gold Star Families for Peace, a non-profit group often confused with the renowned American Gold Star Mothers Inc. The second group is a 79-year-old non-political organization that's based in Washington, D.C., and focuses on volunteering at veterans facilities.

Dede Miller, 48, said her sister's group has about $25,000 on hand. Its funds are used for the "peace movement," she said.

The following day, Sheehan and her husband filed for a "no-fault" divorce.

Sheehan now has her son's name and the date of his death tattooed on one of her ankles. A Chinese symbol "for heaven" is tattooed on the other.

To those who view Sheehan's activism with suspicion, her mission is about feeding an insatiable appetite for attention. Why else, they ask, would a woman with no health insurance coverage gamble away thousands of dollars for a parcel of land in rural Texas?

"Cindy has a lot of hatred about her," said former sister-in-law Cherie Quartarolo, 54, from her home in northern California. "Cindy has chosen to use her dead son's image to promote political causes. That's just inappropriate."

When asked about her detractors, Sheehan lists Fox News broadcaster Bill O'Reilly and other personalities.

But it's the criticism and voices of other mothers who have lost loved ones in Iraq that would seem to sting most.

"I feel sorry for her ... [but] I can't applaud any of her methods," said Molly Morel, 54, whose son, Marine Capt. Brent Morel, was killed in Iraq three days after Sheehan's son.

"Nobody is to blame for my son's death, other than the terrorist who killed him," Morel said, her voice quivering as she spoke about her 27-year-old son from her home in Martin, Tenn. "My son believed, as do so many in the military, that after Sept. 11, if we didn't take the war to them, they would bring the war here. He couldn't abide by that."

- - -

In her words

On leaving the Catholic Church: "I was a Catholic youth minister for eight years. ... I'm not Catholic anymore. The church is too misogynistic."

On life before her son Casey (above) was killed: "It was all about the kids. I was a [Girl] Scout leader and a Cub Scout leader. Our lives revolved around the church."

On her son's death in Iraq: "My son died for lies."



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