Angry that her son, Casey, was killed in the war, Cindy Sheehan had a "brainstorm." While in Dallas for a Veterans for Peace convention, Sheehan thought it might be worthwhile to drive to President George W. Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch to ask the vacationing commander-in-chief why her son had to die in a war based on lies.
When she left Dallas, Sheehan had a 40-vehicle motorcade following her to Crawford, where she started "Camp Casey" in memory of her son, who died April 4, 2004. The rest is history.
The "Bring Them Home Now" caravan is still on the road, and last Thursday, Friday and Saturday it made stops in Raleigh, Carrboro and Durham, attracting about 1,800 people to rallies, a forum, fund-raisers and a march, according to organizers. The tour left Crawford on Aug. 31, sending three sets of buses and RVs across the country, all converging on the United for Peace and Justice Mobilization this weekend in Washington.
In Raleigh, Sheehan and other Gold Star Families for Peace told their tragic stories of loved ones lost to war.
"We never thought that we would spark what we did," Sheehan told the crowd of more than 200 people. "I'm a mother. My heart and my soul were ripped out of me on April 4."
Sheehan recounted the day when soldiers told her of Casey's death.
"I fell on the floor and I screamed so loud and for so long, I know that I shortened my life," she said. "I must have hurt my heart or I must have hurt my brain because nobody can take that violent abuse without having some kind of long-term physical effect."
Sheehan is optimistic her crusade to end the war will triumph.
"Well, as we all know George didn't come out and talk to me, and you know what, I am 100 percent thrilled that he didn't come out and talk to me, or I wouldn't be here today," Sheehan said. "When he didn't meet with me and we set up our Camp Casey, I said, 'Today is the beginning of the end of the occupation of Iraq,' and I believe that."
One night while watching CNN, Jean Prewitt saw Sheehan sitting "in the ditch" near Bush's ranch. "I saw her on TV Sunday, and I was there Wednesday afternoon," said Prewitt, who also spoke in Raleigh.
When Prewitt saw her ex-husband and stepdaughter and two uniformed soldiers in the hallway of her office, she knew it was bad news. Her "baby" son, Kelley, was at war in Iraq. An Army infantryman, Kelley had been among the first U.S. soldiers on the ground.
"As soon as I saw them walking down the hall, they didn't have to say anything," Prewitt said. "I just kept saying, 'Please tell me he's just wounded. Please tell me he's just wounded,' and they kept saying, 'No, ma'am. No, ma'am.'"
Seconds later, the hall filled up with curious workers from throughout Prewitt's Birmingham, Ala., office. Kelley was killed in action April 6, 2003, "on the road to Baghdad." Traumatized, her life forever altered, Prewitt left her job as a human resources specialist with the U.S. Postal Service and never returned.
"I walked out, and I never went back," she said. "I didn't even turn my computer off."
During an interview, Prewitt often took deep breaths in between making her points. She said, "It's been hell" since her son's death.
"It's lonesome, sad, empty. He was just so full of life and so handsome and so sweet and so lovable. It's just a hole in our hearts that we can just never fill. I just can't stand it. I mean it just sickens me, just sickens me."
Like Sheehan, Prewitt's life took a dramatic turn after her son's death. A good, conservative, Southern Baptist mother, Prewitt was proud when her son answered the call to serve his country in a war she supported.
As the months passed, however, Prewitt found herself asking new questions. Why had no weapons of mass destruction been found? Why was the war continuing after the fall of Baghdad and "Mission Accomplished"?
"Of course you would believe the president of the United States, you know, my God," said Prewitt, who voted for Bush in 2000. "I believed that they knew what they were talking about when they said we needed to topple the regime. Then they did it, and they didn't stop, and here it is two and a half years later and it's worse than ever. The other countries hate us. The Iraqis hate us. We killed their children and their innocent people."
Before arriving in Raleigh on Sept. 14, the southern caravan stopped in Columbia, S.C.
Elaine Johnson of Orangeburg, S.C., spoke before Prewitt and Sheehan. Johnson's son, Specialist Darius T. Jennings was killed Nov. 2, 2003, in a helicopter crash that claimed the lives of 16 U.S. soldiers "destroying 16 families at once for oil," said Johnson, who also spoke at an antiwar rally in Fayetteville on March 20, 2004.
"I went out to Camp Casey August 19, and the president? No show," Johnson said. "Why are you so afraid to talk to us? You were on vacation so you had the time. ... I truly understand that you told so many lies that the truth won't come natural."
For these mothers, there are varying degrees of grief.
"My son was returned to me in a closed casket," Johnson said. "Many of his limbs were missing. His face was blown off and his body was burned to a crisp for oil. I need some type of closure because I don't even know whether my son was in the casket. This war is for real, people.
"People, it's time for us to get together because the Gold Star Families does not need no more members," she said.
Prewitt said the Gold Star Families are trying to show the human side of the war.
"It's too late for my son, but it's not too late for the other families," she said, "because I know what the ones who have lost their sons and husbands and daughters are going through, and I wouldn't wish that on anyone."
After Crawford, Sheehan and the other families turned over a lot of the organizing for the caravan to a loose-knit group of activists from across the country. It's not clear how specific cities were selected for a visit from the tour. Rather than ride with one caravan, Sheehan, clearly the one in most demand by the media and local organizers, jets in and out of cities, meeting up with one of the caravans for a day or two.
A Columbia organizer said he was only given two days notice that Sheehan would be in town. North Carolina organizers were told Sheehan would stop in Fayetteville on Sept. 16. The caravan did, but Sheehan did not.
While three Sheehan-attended events were scheduled in Raleigh on Sept. 15, after leaving Columbia the tour passed through Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greensboro without making stops.
In an interview while she was walking to her RV in Columbia, Sheehan said she had "the final say so on everything."
Still, the feisty, unfettered Sheehan was the main act. In Columbia, Sheehan addressed the only two counter-protesters who were there. The two women were holding placards stating, "Cindy Doesn't Speak for Me," and "Support Their Mission."
"I'd like to say to those ladies that say, 'Cindy doesn't speak for me,' you might as well put your sign down, because I never said I did. I don't want to speak for you. And the one who says, 'Support their mission.' I'd like you to explain to me what is their mission?
"Ask George Bush. It changes every day. He changes the mission like he changes his cowboy shirts."
Sheehan also had choice words for the politicians who support wars but make sure they and their families remain out of harm's way.
"My son was a proud American," Sheehan said. "He was sent to die by chickenhawks who would not serve their country. He was sent to die by chickenhawks who took every opportunity to avoid military service. He was sent to die in a war based on lies and deception."
Sheehan also joked about her future plans.
"I really think that at the end of this you all should vote for me for something 'cause I feel like I am on a campaign," she said as the crowd roared. "I couldn't do worse than anybody else that's in office right now, that's for sure. They set the bar pretty low for me."