Protest shapes Sheehan's days

August 06, 2006|By RAY QUINTANILLA | RAY QUINTANILLA,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

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 series 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.

As Sheehan prepares to return to Crawford, Texas, today, renewing a round of protests that thrust her into the national spotlight a year ago, the story of her rise to prominence 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 from opponents who suggest that her constant harangue has made her a political gadfly. Others say it has diluted her message.

Opponents "have been trying to get me for a long time," Sheehan, 49, says in an interview, reflecting on her work since the death of her son Casey while serving in Iraq two years ago.

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

But there are signs Sheehan is not the same person who stumbled into the limelight last year. In addition to an aide who handles her press, she 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 in Crawford to ensure that protests outside President Bush's ranch continue. Sheehan used a portion of her son's life insurance funds to buy the land, the Fort 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," she adds.

Her work has come with a costly emotional price tag.

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 Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld as an "angel of death."

Sheehan's 28-year marriage is over. Family members have spoken out against her.

What was most painful, she said, was the day family members began condemning her anti-war activities. "After 31 years of being in the family, I thought they would support me," she said.

Casey Sheehan enlisted in the Army in spring of 2000. A religious man, he wanted to become a chaplain's assistant.

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

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

For the next year, Cindy Sheehan struggled to make sense of her son's death, asking questions about the propriety of the war.

After months of contemplation, she arrived in Crawford in 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."

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

To those who view Sheehan's activism with suspicion, her mission is about feeding an insatiable appetite for public attention. Why else, they ask, would a woman with no health insurance coverage spend 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," Quartarolo said.

But it's the criticism of other mothers who have lost loved ones in Iraq that seems to sting Sheehan most.

"I feel sorry for her ... [but] I can't applaud any of her methods," said Molly Morel, 54, of Martin, Tenn., whose son, Marine Capt. Brent Morel, was killed in Iraq. "Nobody is to blame for my son's death, other than the terrorist who killed him."

Ray Quintanilla writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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