Editor's Note: Memphian Cheri DelBrocco, who writes the "Mad as Hell" column for the Flyer's Web site, spent several days last week at Camp Casey, the site adjoining President Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch, where a vigil is being kept by Cindy Sheehan, mother of one of the almost 2,000 Americans killed so far in Iraq. Joined by increasing numbers of sympathizers and members of the media, Sheehan continues her quest for a conversation with the president and for an answer to a question which reduces to a simple premise: Why are we in Iraq?
What follows is a distillation of DelBrocco's notes on her journey, a somewhat different, raw version of which can be found elsewhere on the Flyer Web site, at Mad as Hell Blog.
August 16th - As my friend and sidekick Deborah Brackstone and I roll down I-35 into Waco, Texas, in our rented Chevy Malibu, we pass the Texas Chainsaw Massacre Museum and wonder about the Texas sense of humor. A huge purple skull holding a sickle sticks out of a double-wide trailer. Deborah, who's from Cordova, is coming to Crawford, Texas, seeking the truth about the war in Iraq, this administration, and Cindy Sheehan, the grieving mother of a dead soldier, who wants to meet with President Bush. And so am I.
Crawford is approximately 18 miles west of Waco. We remind ourselves to look for the David Koresh compound in Waco on our return from Crawford. There's not much in Crawford except a couple of home-cooking restaurants, a few dozen homes with "I support the President" signs and banners in the yard, three or four churches, and, at the railroad tracks, a corner grocery. In front of the store is a flatbed truck loaded with a huge reproduction of the Liberty Bell flanked by concrete replicas of the Ten Commandments.
The nine-mile stretch to the Bush compound reminds us of rural Fayette County, only with cactus and wild sunflowers growing along the roadside. Goat farms and cattle ranches come one after another. We're in the boonies. Only a few SUVs pass, going the other way. Suddenly, we see it: Camp Casey - named for Pvt. Casey Sheehan, 24, of California, who died in Iraq on April 4, 2004.
Before we approach the camp itself, which is literally in a ditch off the road, we spot the Crawford Peace House. It looks like a scene right out of a folk-art painting, complete with peace T-shirts and other paraphernalia.
Smiling volunteers are minding the store, so to speak, giving directions and offering food, water, and other basic amenities. Most are middle-aged; some appear to be throwbacks to the '60s war-protest days with their gray braids, peasant skirts, and sandals. They ask where we are from and offer us a ride on the "Cindy Shuttle" for the short drive to the campsite.
As we near the campsite, a startling scene emerges. Small white crosses, each with a name of one of the approximately 1,900 soldiers who have died in Iraq, line the road. Someone has placed a fresh, red rosebud on each. Some have photos, teddy bears, or mementos propped up against them. A sense of sadness pervades.
The moment we enter, we spot Cindy. She is waiting serenely for the mics to be set up by a milling group of media types. Cindy is tall and tan with short, sun-streaked hair. She's wearing khaki capris and a brown T-shirt with crosses, medallions, and beads hung around her neck. Her son's name is tattooed on her left ankle.
To the crowd of 100 or more people gathered about her, she announces that some neighbors closer to the Bush ranch have just offered their property for her use and that the entire camp will be moving there over the next few days - down the road, closer to where she hopes she might finally get a visit or invitation from George and Laura Bush. One drawback to the new location, she advises: fewer trees to shade people from the brutal Texas sun.
Many people in today's crowd are holding crosses, and there is talk of prayer and scripture. This is a middle-aged crowd, almost exclusively white. Some have names like "Joyous Rainbow." Others look like soccer moms. There are military families who have lost members in Iraq. They treat Cindy like some sort of sage, a spiritual being like the Dalai Lama. Total strangers approach and touch her, hug her, give her flowers. Some break down emotionally.
As she sits in a lawn chair, with her sister at her side, I walk up and introduce myself. Cindy comments about how nice everyone around here has been so far, except for the neighbor who shot in the air. This, I learn, is one Larry Mattlage, a Crawford rancher whose land is across the road from the campsite. On the previous Sunday, he had come out of his house and fired a shotgun into the air while the campers were conducting a prayer service. He also put up a "No Parking" sign on his property. The local sheriff deputies and the Secret Service paid a visit to Mattlage but later acknowledged his actions were within the law in Texas.
Cindy tells me about Bush's flippant attitude during their brief meeting in June 2004, a 10-minute affair when she and other members of her newly bereaved family had met the president in Tacoma, Washington. It was as if he didn't care to know anything about her, she says.
I ask her about her religious faith. Cindy says that she has not attended mass for some time and that none of the fellow parish members or the priest at the church she has attended have contacted her. She has been conducting an interfaith prayer service every day at the camp, however. She tells me that no congressional Democrats who voted for the war have contacted her but that several who did not vote for it had called to offer sympathy. Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina, she says, is the only Republican who has met with her to offer an apology for his vote in favor of the war.
I decide that I have asked enough questions of Cindy and get ready to leave. She asks me if she can have a hug. It is an emotionally overwhelming moment as I palpably get a tremendous sense of this mother's grief. She tells Deborah and me that more than 1,000 candlelight vigils will be held across the U.S. the next day in support of the efforts at Camp Casey and as demonstrations of Americans' desire for the troops to come home. Deborah and I plan to attend the vigil here tomorrow.
August 17 - Heading out Highway 185 to Crawford, we are reminded again of Tennessee. The flat land, greener than we had imagined, with winding country roads and barbed-wire fences running for miles, could be in any rural West Tennessee county. The searing morning sun also feels familiar. Stopping for film at a souvenir shop in Crawford, we see jars of pecans in heavy syrup and bottles of barbecue sauce.
At the Crawford Peace House, waiting for the shuttle to the camp site, I meet Diane Wagener, a 50-something homemaker married to a retired Army reservist and West Point graduate. They are native Texans who now make their home in Denton. Diane and a group of other women from military families have driven to Crawford to show solidarity with Cindy but also to talk about their activism regarding retired military personnel.
"Reservists are having to lobby to keep their benefits," she says. Wryly, she tells me that among military families in Texas, President Bush and Vice President Cheney are known as "two good ole boys from the oil patch."
On the road to the camp, we note again the little white crosses, with a Star of David or Islamic crescent here and there among them, symbols of the war dead. A day before, a Waco resident named Larry Northern had run over the crosses with his pickup truck. He was later arrested and charged with criminal mischief. A tremendous number of the names on the now restored crosses are Hispanic. Some journalists who are with us explain that many of the soldiers who died were illegal immigrants who volunteered in order to gain citizenship.
At the camp, Cindy is sitting in a lawn chair under an umbrella, sorting through her mail - hundreds of envelopes, it appears. Soon the media approach her and an impromptu press conference ensues:
Q: "What will you do when this is over?"
A: I will continue to fight so that not one other young person has to ever die again in an unjust war such as this one.
I plan to go to Italy next month to the U.N. delegation conference for youth. I have three other children and I will go on with my life, but we are all so aware of Casey's loss and the lack of his presence when we are together. "How do you feel about the fact that your husband is divorcing you?"
I think it is awful the way some in the press such as Drudge, Bill O'Reilly, and Sean Hannity are depicting me and being so mean with such negativity, but I am willing to be the sacrificial lamb if that is what it takes to stop this war.
Around noon, we spot Anderson Cooper of CNN. A retired elementary school teacher from San Antonio is telling him that when she saw the reports about the crosses being run over, she realized that she had to make her way to Crawford to meet Cindy. "I was pissed off," she says. "Actually, I've been pissed off about this war from the very beginning."
Soon, Cooper turns to talk to a group of us standing by. Someone complains to him that the media badgered Clinton about his sex life but has been relatively soft in reporting Bush's derelictions. I join in: "Mr. Cooper, you know the media has never asked tough questions of the Bush administration," I say. "Why don't you ask them why the story line for why we invaded Iraq has changed so many times?"
The cotton-haired media star defends his objectivity but grows defensive. "Do you want objective reporting or biased reporting from the left?" he asks. I tell him all we want is truly fair reporting and challenge him to tell me one example of a TV network whose "left-wing bias" might match the notorious right-wing slant of Fox News.
He chuckles. "I don't know. All I can tell you is what I do at CNN and that I try to do the best and fairest job I can do."
As we get ready to leave, a member of the group tells Cooper that the movement supporting Cindy Sheehan could be called "the revenge of the 50-year-old middle-class woman." He smiles politely.
August 18th - The Texas sun is unrelenting. It is over 85 degrees at 9 a.m. We stop again at the souvenir shop in Crawford. The owner, behind the counter, recognizes us and is cordial. He tells us the land for the Bush ranch, with more than 1,600 acres and a 16-acre lake, was purchased in 1999 for $2.9 million. The locals call it the "Western White House." He adds that the media is not allowed on the ranch and that George and Laura Bush are said to be getting ready to add an addition to the property, a $1 million guest home for their daughters.
At the campsite there is a larger media presence than the day before. I meet an ecologist, Glen Barry, from Green Bay, Wisconsin, who heads up a group called Greens Against the War. "This war is devastating our earth," he says. I talk to several other newcomers: John Graborn, of Philadelphia, is representing Veterans for Peace. I discuss with him and others a new letter-writing campaign to Laura Bush to persuade her to visit the campsite. The consensus of those I talk to is that Laura Bush didn't make this war and that for President Bush to try to "make nice" by using his wife to reach out to Cindy would be an insult to the cause, though several think it might be helpful for Laura Bush to embrace Cindy Sheehan as one mother to another.
We go back to the row of crosses and notice again the preponderance of Hispanic names. Our hearts grow heavy as we read "Jesus Angel Gonzalez," "Genaro Acusta," and "Rablito Pena Briones, Jr." on the pieces of paper attached with rubber bands to the crosses. A Hispanic group, who identify themselves as members of the Flores family, arrives to place their own cross among the others. Their fallen Marine is Lance Corporal Jonathan R. Flores, who died in Ramadi, Iraq, on June 15th.
Rubin Flores, 43, had traveled from San Antonio with his niece, Ebony Castro, 15, nephew Aaron Ramos, 12, son Jason Flores, 15, and the late Marine's fiancée, Alexandra Aragon, 18. Jason's twin brother could not make the four-hour drive. Family members, having seen Cindy Sheehan on the news, say they felt compelled to come and meet her so they could be with someone who could understand their pain. As we talk, there is a good deal of crying and hugging all around. Alexandra looks young. Her black hair is highlighted with magenta streaks. She is still wearing her fiancé's Marine Corps insignia ring. She turned 18 last year, she says, and cast her first presidential vote for John Kerry because she did not agree with the war in Iraq. Still, she had supported Jonathan in his military mission because she loved him and knew how deeply he had wanted to be a Marine.
Through tears, Jason tells me how proud he was of his brother and how they had corresponded every four days or so. In his letters, Corporal Flores had confided how "horrible" the war was but related how pleased he was to be teaching the Iraqi kids to play American sports. Maybe we should stay in Iraq until we are "finished," the family members agree. When will that be? I ask. When we have built back the country that we have torn apart, they say.
Rubin Flores is, like the others, wearing a T-shirt with a photo of Jonathan on the front. He looks tired and slightly dazed. He tells us he feels like a "lost" man and says, "What they are doing is a suicide mission." After a long, emotional silence, he continues: "I just wish Bush had a plan."
At that moment, Cindy approaches the Flores family. As they embrace, everyone weeps and huddles together. It was the most powerful moment of my time in Crawford.
The 200 or so supporters of Cindy are getting prepared to move to the new site, closer to the Bush residence. At some point, a counter-protester shows up. Gary Arnett, who says he is from Pottsboro, Texas, has brought his toddler daughter with him. He walks around complaining about Cindy Sheehan. "I have been a Texan since 1839," Arnett says, "and as a seventh-generation Texan, I believe this is exploitation." He adds that the people who have come from California, New York, Massachusetts, and indeed all over are unwanted. As he talks, his daughter swelters, unprotected from the sun. Someone in the group of Sheehan supporters asks if a hat or other covering can be found for the child. Eventually, one of the protesters takes her up gently and puts her into her father's arms, just as he is about to yell that Camp Casey is an exploitation of Texas that will do nothing to end the war in Iraq. He concludes his harangue, child tucked in his arms, by telling Cindy to leave Texas.
He gets his wish - temporarily, at least. By the end of the day, news comes that Cindy's mother has suffered a stroke, and she is on her way to California to see her. She will, however, return, or so she vows.
Deborah and I went to Crawford to confirm our gut suspicions about Cindy Sheehan, President Bush, this war, and the growing unrest of the American people. As usual, gut feelings don't lie. Cindy's description of her encounter with Bush in Tacoma in 2004, the one that prompted her ultimately to begin her vigil, was unsettling. As she told about that meeting, it was easy to envision the Bush strut she described - entering the room as though he were entering a party.
Cindy's description of her meeting with Bush reminded me of the stage-managed "Mission Accomplished" performance on an aircraft carrier on May 29, 2003. Even the Bush ranch struck me as a contrivance that perpetuates the sham. The then Texas governor had purchased the property only a few months before his election to the presidency, and it comes off as a gigantic movie prop. What you see on television is a stage set of old barns, equipment, and fencing nearly 10 miles away from the actual ranch.
The idea that everyone who lives in Texas loves and supports ol' Dubya may also be a sham - or at least an overstatement. We met many Texans who see the president as an arrogant son who used his daddy's name and connections to get ahead.
It seems to me that what Cindy Sheehan and the others mourning their war dead at Camp Casey are doing is bringing a visible accountability to bear on this administration's policies in Iraq. Their testimony is clear: America has gained nothing of value and lost much from this war. We have gained no security, no freedom, no fortune, no land, and no allies. Instead, we've gained death, dismemberment, increased national debt, more enemies, and more restrictions on our freedoms.
President Bush could have defused this story on the first day Cindy arrived in Crawford. He could have embraced her, looked her in the eye, and honestly answered her question: "What was the noble cause you keep claiming my son died for?"
But perhaps he didn't because he didn't know himself.