In the 11 days since she set up camp just down the road from President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, Cindy Sheehan has gone from grieving mother and average American to the face of the country's increasingly boisterous antiwar movement
When she arrived in Crawford, Sheehan had a seemingly simple, albeit unlikely, request: an hour of the president's time to discuss her son Casey's death in the Iraq war. Now, as her vigil has received more and more notice, hundreds of people have joined Sheehan at "Camp Casey," as the encampment has become known and she has become a controversial icon of antiwar activists.
Being at the center of a political and media frenzy might be overwhelming for a former Catholic youth minister who never considered herself much of a political activist. But Sheehan has grown increasingly comfortable in the spotlight, and despite some biting criticism, she hasn't retreated from her stated goal.
"I've said I'll leave if he met with me, and I'll leave if he meets with me," she told reporters on a conference call on Tuesday.
In addition to requesting a meeting with Bush, Sheehan is now calling for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. She promised to send a similar message if the president agrees to meet with her.
"If George Bush comes out here today or if we leave here at the end of August, this is only the beginning, and we're not going to stop until our troops are brought home," Sheehan said. "I'm a mother out here who has a broken heart that doesn't want any other mothers to have a broken heart."
Like it or not, Sheehan has become much more than just a broken-hearted mom.
All-American Lifestyle Interrupted
Sheehan, 48, grew up outside Los Angeles, one of three children in a tightly knit family. The family kept abreast of the news of the day, but never stressed public activism, according to Sheehan's sister, Dede Miller.
"We always kept up with current issues, but we were never really active in protests or things like that," Miller said.
Cindy married her high school boyfriend, Patrick Sheehan, at the age of 20. The couple had four children -- two boys and two girls -- and settled in Vacaville, Calif., midway between Sacramento and San Francisco. He worked as a salesman and she spent years volunteering at their church, eventually working there as a youth minister. She later took a job with the Napa County Department of Health and Human Services. By all accounts, it was a typically American family.
But the family's story took a tragic turn on April 4, 2004, when Casey, the Sheehans' oldest son, was killed while serving as an Army specialist in Iraq. Casey, a former altar boy and Eagle Scout, had recently re-enlisted and was killed on his fifth day in Iraq. Grief stricken, Sheehan was dismissed from her job four months later after taking too much time off work to mourn Casey's death.
"She would give all of this up in a second if she could have Casey back. Her goal in all this is to make sure no more mothers have to feel what she feels," Miller said.
After her son's death, Sheehan gradually became more politically outspoken. She met briefly with Bush last year at an event for the families of fallen soldiers, but she now says the president seemed disconnected. As news about flawed pre-war intelligence trickled into the media in the months that followed, her grief turned to anger about the decision to send troops into Iraq.
She became involved in antiwar organizations and co-founded Gold Star Families for Peace, a group of military families who oppose the war. She also started speaking at demonstrations and peace rallies across the country, the most recent in Dallas on Aug. 6, the day before taking residence in Crawford.
"The movement was out there; it just needed a spark," she said about her rising profile.
Local and National Phenomenon
Once simply a mother with a personal cause, Sheehan has become a pied piper of sorts. More than 100 activists, including Iraq war veterans and family members of other slain troops, have taken up residence alongside Sheehan in her dusty camp.
A full-time PR assistant handles interview requests, and at least four antiwar organizations have taken part in the Crawford vigil. Sheehan now uses conference calls with reporters to get her message out. There were plans for up to 1,000 smaller gatherings nationwide on Wednesday as a show of support.
Sheehan doesn't shy away from her new role. She openly solicits more visitors to Camp Casey, and she has promised to stay until Bush leaves his vacation home at the end of August unless he agrees to speak with her before that.
"She's always been a really strong person, a leader. After Casey died she took all of that and applied it to this one cause, and now we've progressed to where we are now," Miller said.
The crusade has pulled her from the family's Vacaville home, and her personal life has suffered. Word that Patrick Sheehan had filed for divorce leaked into the news coverage earlier this week. Sheehan said that the divorce papers were filed before she came to Crawford, but acknowledged the first sign that the public focus was shifting to her life rather than her cause.
"I believe this is a matter of right and wrong and life and death. We need to look at the message and not the messenger," she said.
Facing a Backlash
Even those who disagree with Sheehan's actions agree the grieving mother is a powerful symbol. But her knack for inflammatory comments has polarized many following the Crawford situation. She has called for Bush's impeachment and has said she will refuse to pay taxes until American troops are withdrawn.
"I'm not going to pay taxes to the people who killed my son. I'm not going to fund their murdering," she said on Tuesday. "I don't care. I want them to come after me."
Sheehan has also been sharply criticized for her comments about Israel, including her statement that Israel should leave Palestinian territories.
A group of Bush and Iraq war supporters has started gathering down the road, many of whom accuse Sheehan of being a pawn of left-wing activists. The national media convened, bringing the usual distractions that accompany such a divisive political story. Bush has repeatedly said he respects her right to speak her mind but has thus far declined to speak with her in person.
He did say he sympathized with the grieving mother but continued to believe it would be a mistake to withdraw troops from Iraq immediately. "She has every right in the world to say what she believes. This is America. She has a right to her position," Bush said.
The coexistence in Crawford has remained mostly peaceful, but on Wednesday Camp Casey planned to move down the road to a local ranch because of concerns about traffic problems and the first signs of a budding discord. A neighbor fired a shotgun in the air on Saturday, and overnight Monday a pickup truck sideswiped a row of white crosses set up along the road as memorials to fallen troops in Iraq.
Despite the turmoil, Sheehan remained undaunted. Driven by her son's memory, she said there's nothing critics might do or say that would prevent her from spreading her message.
"I'm not afraid of anything or anybody. What are they going to do to me? They've already killed my son," she said.