Camp Casey goes to Washington

As America's most famous antiwar activist takes her crusade on the road, supporters pack up their banners and rosary beads and promise Crawford will always remember "Sheehan's stand."

Published August 31, 2005 11:45PM (EDT)

On Cindy Sheehan's last Sunday in Crawford, Texas, the president finally came to Camp Casey II to meet and even pray with her. Not President Bush, which comes as no surprise, but TV President Jed Bartlet of "The West Wing," Martin Sheen.

The actor and activist arrived late in the day to a cheer from at least one bystander of "Bartlet for America!" He came to say a memorial rosary with his fellow Catholic Sheehan for her son and all the other servicemen who died in Iraq. It was the highlight of a Sunday at the ground zero of the new antiwar movement that included a morning visit from the Rev. Al Sharpton for prayer services, a Jewish kaddish, two weddings, and the sharing and solidarity that have become a trademark of Sheehan's inspiring vigil down the road from George W. Bush's pseudo ranch in the rolling farmland of Central Texas.

On Wednesday, Sheehan decamps from Crawford and heads to Austin. She will hold a rally at City Hall to kick off her bus tour that will end in Washington at a major antiwar demonstration planned for Sept. 24. Since she first camped out alone on the side of the road on Aug. 6 at what became known as Camp Casey I, thousands of Americans have also made the pilgrimage to the town and countryside near the president's vacation getaway to show their support. And millions have witnessed her crusade via the media.

Certainly the people who joined Sheehan at Camp Casey -- an estimated peak of 1,000 on Saturday and 500 or so on Sunday -- represented a vast swath of the American electorate. There were the fellow mothers and fathers of those killed in Iraq, and the activist organizations that are opposed to the war. There were military men and women, and veterans of Iraq, Vietnam and the peacetime armed services. Joan Baez and Steve Earle have performed, and on Sunday, Texas blues guitar wunderkind Carolyn Wonderland and Austin bluesman Frank Meyer won over the crowd.

And, yes, those who oppose Sheehan have also come to Crawford. But it's clear at Camp Casey II, as well as across the rest of the nation -- if current opinion polls are any indication -- that Sheehan, in her simple gesture of camping on Bush's doorstep, has united opposition to the war in Iraq as no one has done before.

"At least Cindy got the acting president of the United States," Sheen told the cheering crowd, when he took the stage for what he said were some unprepared remarks. "I don't need to tell you how many people are watching what's happening here, on what can only be called sacred ground. All over the country, people are watching. And many of us who have been silent for too long have begun to get behind these women, who are being led by Cindy Sheehan.

"I am so grateful to all of you for standing with her, for vigiling," Sheen continued in his best Bartlet style. "It is in the old Irish tradition that goes back centuries that when you had a rift with a landlord or an authority, you vigiled in front of their homes until they came out and confronted you. When I spoke with Cindy for the first time some few weeks ago, she told me she was Catholic, and that Casey was a devout Catholic and devoted to the Holy Mother. And when his remains were sent home, there were 11 rosaries found in his belongings. So I suggested we do the rosary to honor him and his fallen comrades. So that is really what this prayer service is all about."

Sheehan was moved by the rosary service. "It was very special," she said later. "Casey loved the church a lot. After he died, the chapel at his base started a new Knights of Columbus organization. And they named it the Casey Austin Sheehan Knights of Columbus Council, because he loved the church, he loved his community, he loved serving people. So they said he exemplified everything about what they want to stand for." Sheehan added that she was honored that among the many supporters who have visited her in Crawford was her "dream president." Echoing the feelings of many, she added, "He's a lot better than the other one."

Crawford sits in the midst of the rolling black land prairie of Central Texas, which after an unseasonably rainy August was graced with a bucolic and almost pacific greenness. At the edge of town, a small billboard with a waving George W. Bush and smiling Laura reads, "Welcome to Crawford." A little farther in, a banner atop four large metal grain silos proclaims that this land is "Bush Country."

Supporters of the president and the war were gathered at the four corners in the center of town following their rally on Saturday. At an encampment of red, white and blue tents with banners proclaiming, "God Bless Our Troops! ... America! ... President Bush!" was planted a small patch of maybe 20 white crosses bearing the names of servicemen and women who had died in Iraq. Inside the tents, Ellen Frazier of Waco, who said she was there with Operation Building Bridges, insisted, "You can't support the troops without supporting the war."

Down at the corner in front of the Yellow Rose, a Western store that sells everything from gifts to horse feed to guns and ammo, and of course Bush mementos, a replica of the Liberty Bell sat atop a trailer festooned with flags and stars and stripes bunting, flanked by two stone tablets -- looking much like tombstones -- on which was carved the Ten Commandments. In front of it, a couple wearing pins with red, white and blue ribbons spoke to a video cameraman. "Whether you agree with this war or not, [the troops] are there," the woman told the interviewer. "Agree with it and support them."

"As a citizen, she can do what she wants and she can protest," Frazier said of Sheehan, then adding with a snippy tone, "But she does not have a right to be heard without our side being heard."

"I wonder if she returned all the money that the government paid her for her son's death," Margaret Dunlap of Waco inquired. "She took the money, and what she is doing to this small community is not fair. It's very disruptive." Just like the presence of the president? "That is expected when you have some celebrity move in," said Dunlap.

The 10-mile drive west of town to Camp Casey winds past homes with yard signs bearing slogans like "IM4W." They continue the signatory debate between the Bush supporters and the visitors packed into vans shuttling to and from the Crawford Peace House in town and Sheehan's encampment. Just after passing the white clapboard New Canaan Baptist Church the road gently descends to reveal the eight ivory spires of the giant tent of what on this day is not just Camp but also Church Casey.

In front of the tent by the roadside is the now famed field of hundreds of small white crosses naming serviceman killed in Iraq, some decorated with flowers and their dog tags and combat boots. They underscore the sacrifices and losses that America has suffered in the two and a half years since our nation's armed forces invaded and occupied Iraq.

Amid the line of vehicles parked just past Camp Casey, Ron Teska from Greene County, Penn., was putting the finishing touches on a large stone marker to leave behind after Sheehan's departure. He'd carved the words "Sheehan's Stand" into it. "This is for Cindy's efforts and her message," Teska said.

A hunter green Chevy SUV waving a large American flag and displaying a sign that read "God Bless Bush. God Bless USA" rolled past a parked minivan on which was written in white shoe polish, "Hey Dubya! Meet With Cindy!" Two women stood at the entrance to Camp Casey holding signs that read: "George Bush -- You Make God Cry" and "Cindy's Son Volunteered and Died; Bush's Son Deserted and Lied."

"My daughter and I flew out from Seattle," said Sue Cozza. "We came out and have been working at the Peace House for a couple of days and we finally came out here.

"My dad was hit by a fragmentation grenade in 1966 in Vietnam and war has been a part of my life since I was 11, and I'm 50 now," Cozza added. "So war has never gone away for me, never. When I see how Bush is just killing these kids for his ego, I had to come out. Actually, I was driving my husband crazy. He said, 'Go to Crawford. Go to Crawford.'"

One couldn't help sensing a solemnity at Camp Casey II even if the vibe also felt a bit like a country fair, albeit one devoted to ending the war in Iraq. Sheehan's second encampment sprouted while she went home to California to visit her stricken mother in the hospital.

Inside the tent at one end is a stage from which speeches and performances go on throughout the day. Above it hangs a banner: "Mothers Say No to War." At the other end is a makeshift kitchen and buffet line. People gather at the chairs and tables inside to listen and discuss; others join in as volunteers to keep it all running with a surprisingly organic smoothness. Banners tout the presence of the organizations that have joined Sheehan in Crawford: Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), Military Families Speak Out and Veterans for Peace.

At the far side of the tent hangs a giant portrait of the mother's son who sparked it all. Casey Sheehan overlooks the camp that bears his name, with the stars and stripes waving behind him. "When I got back, that's what I was faced with," said Sheehan of Camp Casey II. "I was just overwhelmed. And then to see the big painting of Casey really affected me a lot."

George W. Bush may not have made it to Camp Casey, but the military was there in full force. Army Reserve Spc. David Lewis, who recently returned home from serving in Tikrit, traveled from Binghamton, N.Y., to tell the story of how he joined the armed services after 9/11 because "it sort of became the least worst option.

"I was not being able to afford school. I was working part-time. I was just sort of eking by and going to school part-time. I was looking at not finishing and just getting into debt. And the Army seemed like the easy way to get out," he explained.

Lewis believed he was joining a noble cause. "Afghanistan had happened already, they were getting Osama bin Laden. And I was like, you know what, all I'm going to do is help secure the peace. I'm going to be a force for peace in the world. Because now we are going to get Osama bin Laden and no more wars because we're gonna ..." His voice trailed off.

"And then I'm in basic training," Lewis continued. "And we don't have cable television in basic training. We don't even have a newspaper. So I don't know what the hell's going on out there. And the drill sergeant started to make fun of us. 'You know you'd better shape up or else you're not going to make it in Iraq!' I'm like, Iraq? What are you talking about? The sergeant's reply was, 'Yeah. You should hear the president ...'

"I've always been against war," Lewis insisted. "I don't think being in the military means that I am a lover of war. It just means that I believe that this country needs to be defended. When I took that oath of office, I didn't take the oath to kill people. I took it to defend the country from enemies foreign and domestic." He said that he believes many of his fellow servicemen and women feel similarly but fear even discussing such notions.

Does he believe that Iraq was a threat to the United States? "It is now! I think the war on terror is a sham. I don't know what else to say."

Air Force veteran Carl Cook of Dallas was standing by the side of the road holding a sign that read: "Bush... You're Fired." "I joined to get the technical training and get a leg up in life, and it worked out," he said. "I think everyone should do a national service. Like AmeriCorps or Peace Corps or the military. It shouldn't necessarily be mandatory. But I think it's appropriate."

However, he feels the current U.S. misadventure in Iraq is not. "This is an immoral war," he said. "It was started on false pretenses. We're sacrificing our people unnecessarily. This is destructive to the nation."

Vietnam veteran and Gold Star father Steve DeFord came to Crawford from Salem, Ore., to honor his son, Oregon National Guard Sgt. David Johnson, who was killed in Iraq last year on Sept. 25 at the age of 37. Johnson had already served in the Army and then joined the Guard after Sept. 11.

"He wanted to help the people of Oregon," DeFord explained. "He was a cook by profession; he cooked at one of the larger restaurants in downtown Portland. They didn't need cooks in Iraq because Halliburton was cooking. So he was made a machine gunner on a Humvee.

"He was in a headquarters company out of Baghdad in the Green Zone. They were escorting water to various units in the country. And there was a 500-pound United States bomb that had been dropped that didn't detonate. So the enemy picked it up and set it next to the road and detonated it with a cellphone and C-5. It blew the Humvee up in the air and turned it totally around. And when it came back down, everybody was getting out and going, God, we're lucky, everyone is here. Fine. And they looked up in the turret and my son had been hit in the back of the head with shrapnel."

And it wasn't just a matter of DeFord and his wife losing a son. "He was due to be married in three weeks. He'd been over there six months and he was due for his break. He was going to meet his fiancie in Rome and get married."

In the late afternoon, Sheehan cradled a newborn baby in her arms underneath the painting of her late son as she watched Genevieve Van Cleve and Peter Ravella of Austin, Texas, get married. The pair had met a few years back at one of the legendary monthly "Final Friday" parties of Austin leftists hosted by columnist Molly Ivins at her South Austin home. "We were engaged since March," explained Ravella, whose father was a career Air Force officer and whose brother is currently serving in the military. "And we'd been looking for a way to get married."

They had visited Camp Casey II the weekend before and worked as volunteers. "After we came out here, Gen said to me: 'You know, this would be the place to get married. This is serious, this is what we're about, this is what we believe in.' And suddenly everything we were thinking of doing just looked silly. And we thought, you know what, blowing a bunch of money on chicken and a keg for our friends is not interesting. We'd rather give money to Cindy and her group. This is about our family and the celebration of this love. And whether you agree or disagree with Cindy, you have to respect the courage that she has, the courage that these women have. You can't argue with it."

"We couldn't have imagined anything nicer than this," added Van Cleve.

"That was really cool, huh?" Sheehan said afterward. "Camp Casey is all about love and life. I can't think of a better way to start your new life off, and I was really honored that they chose to do that. And there was another wedding down at Camp Casey I too."

She has been hailed as a hero and slandered as a traitor. But Sheehan remains resolute. "I don't think what I did was heroic," she said. "I just think it was something I had to do. I did it for myself, really. I did it in honor of Casey and all the other ones who have been killed. I did it for the people that are in harm's way.

"At the end of the day I have to live with myself," she added. "And if I don't stand up for what I think is right and for what I am against and I think is wrong, I can't do that. I'm hoping one of these days to have grandchildren -- I have three other children -- and be able to look them in the eye and say, 'Your grandma did everything she could.'"

By Rob Patterson

Rob Patterson is a freelance journalist in Austin, Texas, who writes a column on entertainment and politics for the Progressive Populist.

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