When Sheehan first caught my---and everyone else's---attention by camping outside Bush's Crawford, Texas ranch, I believe a lot of us didn't know what to think.
I did think Bush looked churlish by not agreeing to meet with her.
Five minutes. Why was that too much to ask? Five minutes for the grieving mother whose son died for this country.
I realize that approximately 3500 families are grieving for the same reason. (If you want to see numbers, go here.)
I realize that if Bush gave five minutes to every grieving family that would mean he'd spend 17,500 minutes (almost 300 hours, probably about 8 straight weeks) offering his condolences and appreciation. (Assuming there were no additional casualties, which is, sadly, unlikely.)
I understand the President has other obligations and responsibilities.
I grasp how easy it is to sit to the side and say people knew what they were getting into, a general message has to suffice, things aren't fair.
But I also can easily comprehend how Sheehan felt and why she did what she did. When something devastating happens to me, it is unlike anything else that has ever happened to anyone else because this time, it is my tragedy. And it feels different. We handle grief differently, and sometimes it spurs people to do extraordinary things...such as camp outside the second white house.
I can comprehend what she did, camping outside that ranch. I can understand her wanting to draw attention to this, to do something worthwhile in her mind, in her son's name---make his death matter, make it bring about some good, such as keep another mother from going through what she was. I have a lot of sympathy, actually.
It could be because I am a mother.
It could be because I, too, have grieved.
It could be because my father was in the military, in the Vietnam era. He was an officer, and as such, he and my mother (and subsequently me, I suppose) were afforded a degree of "cushiness" lower ranking and enlisted families were not. My mother recently talked to me about life as a military wife outside Washington, D.C. (where we lived at the time). Our conversation probably happened because I mentioned how one friend just came home, and another friend's husband just had his tour of duty extended, again. I think the current war brings about some Vietnam flashbacks for a lot of people.
It could be that I remember when my father and his buddies got together, there was sometimes a moment when they paused and remembered the friends who weren't there.
It could be because I have known a lot of people who came home from war, but were never the same, or left a good bit of themselves behind.
The bottom line is, I understood. And I thought the President ought to have given her five minutes, even if it meant life was unfair because 3,499 other families didn't get equal opportunity.
When she morphed---voluntarily and involuntarily---from individual, grieving mother into a tool, a spokesperson, an event, I got a sinking feeling. Figureheads very easily and very often end up guys, especially in the middle of very controversial and emotional issues, such as this one.
And so it came to pass, here, too.
Ms. Sheehan's letter is simply disillusioned and disheartened. It is the letter of a guy. She begins by saying:
I have come to some heartbreaking conclusions this Memorial Day Morning. These are not spur of the moment reflections, but things I have been meditating on for about a year now. The conclusions that I have slowly and very reluctantly come to are very heartbreaking to me.
She goes on to explain how frustrating it was to have this become a two-party political message, when a plea for peace ought to transcend politics:
The first conclusion is that I was the darling of the so-called left as long as I limited my protests to George Bush and the Republican Party. Of course, I was slandered and libeled by the right as a "tool" of the Democratic Party. This label was to marginalize me and my message. How could a woman have an original thought, or be working outside of our "two-party" system?
However, when I started to hold the Democratic Party to the same standards that I held the Republican Party, support for my cause started to erode and the "left" started labeling me with the same slurs that the right used. I guess no one paid attention to me when I said that the issue of peace and people dying for no reason is not a matter of "right or left", but "right and wrong."
She warns of the inherent danger in ardent allegiance to two political parties, and the even greater danger of adhering to labels for everything and everyone:
Blind party loyalty is dangerous whatever side it occurs on. People of the world look on us Americans as jokes because we allow our political leaders so much murderous latitude and if we don’t find alternatives to this corrupt "two" party system our Representative Republic will die and be replaced with what we are rapidly descending into with nary a check or balance: a fascist corporate wasteland. I am demonized because I don’t see party affiliation or nationality when I look at a person, I see that person’s heart. If someone looks, dresses, acts, talks and votes like a Republican, then why do they deserve support just because he/she calls him/herself a Democrat?
And most sadly of all, she tells of what this has cost her personally:
I have spent every available cent I got from the money a "grateful" country gave me when they killed my son and every penny that I have received in speaking or book fees since then. I have sacrificed a 29 year marriage and have traveled for extended periods of time away from Casey’s brother and sisters and my health has suffered and my hospital bills from last summer (when I almost died) are in collection because I have used all my energy trying to stop this country from slaughtering innocent human beings. I have been called every despicable name that small minds can think of and have had my life threatened many times.
The most devastating conclusion that I reached this morning, however, was that Casey did indeed die for nothing. His precious lifeblood drained out in a country far away from his family who loves him, killed by his own country which is beholden to and run by a war machine that even controls what we think. I have tried ever since he died to make his sacrifice meaningful.
Ms. Sheehan did something extraordinary. She did what she believed in. She tried to turn a personally bad event into something good. I can respect that.
I can also respect her point that when someone really believes in something, they do more than walk in a protest march or sit behind a computer and espouse opinion.
It might not be much, but I can certainly send letters to active military people through a group that sends support, can probably find a nice blanket or quilt for an injured serviceman, and can definitely send coupons for the families. Laugh as you might, but I sent a George Foreman grill. Listen, you never know what you have that someone else needs. (There are a lot of good groups to do this through, if you are interested.)
I know for many, many people Memorial Day isn't one day, but is every day.
I think Ms. Sheehan is one of those. I continue to have sympathy and respect, and am sorry that all she has done has not brought her any personal peace, but has only brought more grief. She started an organization, Gold Star Families for Peace, that admittedly will no longer be working for peace. However, they will continue their humanitarian mission. She may not feel it now, but I don't think her effort was wasted in the broader scheme. She may never feel it---the position of figurehead is a tough one.
Goodbye, Cindy. You've fought your own battle, now. You got people thinking about the war, and its cost to individuals. You got people (not just politicians) talking about this war and what they think. You're wounded, but not a casualty. I appreciate your service and sacrifices as you fought for what you believed in.
It's irrelevent whether one agrees or disagrees with her. She stood up. She spoke out loud. She pursued her beliefs, actively. As an individual (at least initially). It's a great example. That's American. That's what her son---and the other men and women---are fighting to preserve, among other things.
She deserves respect, not good riddance and a door slam.
copyright 2007 Julie Pippert