Letter from Crawford (August 2005)

Usually, when the president of the United States isn’t around, you can drive up Prairie Chapel Road, past the bright orange signs that say “No Stopping, No Standing, No Parking,” right up to the gates of the 1,600-acre ranch, and see the outhouses in the distance. But that’s all changed in the past week. Since August 6, with Congress in recess and George W. Bush on vacation here, Cindy Sheehan, the mother of an American soldier killed in Iraq last year, has been holding a vigil outside the ranch in Crawford, Tex., that has rapidly turned into the focal point of the anti-war movement in the United States.

At first, Ms. Sheehan camped almost alone, sleeping on a wooden chair beside the road that leads from Crawford, a tiny town of 750 people, to the ranch around a mile way. But as word of her protest spread, more and more people from around the US started to joined her. On Sunday afternoon, there were several hundred protesters out in the 95-degree Texas heat. The road to the ranch is now closed off and is guarded by a McLennnan County Sherriff’s Deputy and a secret service man. The camp, which has become known as “Camp Casey” after Ms. Sheehan’s son, Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, who was killed in Iraq in April 2004, is now a sprawl of trailers and tents at a fork in the road around a mile away from the entrance to the ranch. The roadside is lined with pictures of Casey Sheehan and signs with anti-war messages and hundreds of white crosses, each bearing the name of an American soldier killed in Iraq.

As the camp has expanded, Ms. Sheehan, of Vacaville, Calif., has become a minor celebrity. A long-time opponent of the war, she became active in the anti-war movement after her son was killed and co-founded Gold Star Families for Peace, an organisation of relatives of soldiers who have died in the war. She began by speaking around the country at various anti-war events, but after 14 Marines were killed in the first week of August, she says she felt she needed to do more. “It broke my heart,” she says, sitting in her trailer, dabbing mineral water from a bottle on her forehead. “I was feeling like a failure.” That’s when she decided to come to Crawford, just as the President was beginning his five-week vacation here.

Ms. Sheehan is an earthy-looking figure, with a blond bob and a tattoo on her ankle with the words, “Casey, 4.4.04”. She plans to stay until the president agrees to meet with her, which he has so far refused to do. But she also says coming to Crawford has helped her deal with her anger about her son’s death. “We get here and the anger eases,” she says. “Because we have the power. We’ve felt powerless. But we, the people, have to be the checks and balances.” Her campaign has galvanized the anti-war movement. “The country’s abuzz,” says Tim Goodrich, a young Air Force veteran who is the co-founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War. “People in the red states can identify with Cindy.”

Ms. Sheehan has now also been joined at Camp Casey by other moms of soldiers killed in Iraq. Mary Ann Maccombie, a softly-spoken 59 year-old from Atlanta, lost her son Ryan Campbell, a soldier in the 1st Armored Divison, south of Baghdad. Unlike Ms. Sheehan, she was “sceptical but supportive” of the invasion of Iraq. “I wanted to believe we had a valid reason for going to war,” she says. But as it became increasingly clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, she too felt it was “time to speak up” and plans to stay in Crawford to stay indefinitely. “It’s too late for my son, but it’s not too late for others,” she says, wearing a floppy camouflaged army hat, with her son’s dogtags hanging from her neck. “I wanted to send a message that if Bush doesn’t relent, there are going to be other mothers asking the questions as I am.”

Some of the protesters, including Sheehan herself, want an immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. Others want to see a change of administration. But the protest has coalesced around a much simpler demand – that President Bush meet with Cindy Sheehan and listen to what she has to say. His refusal to do so has become a symbol for the way that, according to many people here, the Bush administration has not been held accountable for the war. “The feeling is, he’s not listening to people,” said Linda Sears, 35, from Richardson, Tex., who had come to Crawford for the day. (In fact, Bush did meet with Sheehan last year at one of his regular meetings with families of fallen soldiers in Fort Lewis, Wash. But although Ms. Sheehan said she was not happy with Bush’s conduct of the war, she did not confront the president.)

As Camp Casey has expanded in the past week and received more and more publicity – partly courtesy of the White House reporters who have followed the President here and have little to do – the anti-war protesters have also been joined by a smaller but growing group of pro-war activists. They stand on the other side of the road, separated by four Sheriff’s deputies’ cars, with their own signs with slogans such as “Freedom isn’t Free” and “God Bless Our President” and “Stay the Course”. “Sometimes war is what it takes to get peace,” says Michael Cassidy, a 37 year-old former Marine from Meridian, Tex.

Some of the counter-demonstrators have also lost relatives in Iraq. 17 year-old Amy Walters came with her mother specifically to remove her older brother’s name from the cross dedicated to him on the side of the road. She tells me 21 year-old Pfc. Leroy Sandoval, Jr., was the first Marine to be killed in Fallujah in March 2004 and was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star. “We don’t want my brother to be dishonoured,” she said, standing on the roadside holding the sign she had taken off the cross, and with a “little sister” charm around her neck. “If he would have seen this, he would have been heartbroken,” she says. “He was everything to me. I loved my brother so much. But I’m not mad at President Bush. I know he was doing the right thing.”

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