In War Debate, Parents of Fallen Are United Only in Grief By ABBY GOODNOUGH
David Clemons seethes when he sees Cindy Sheehan on television, standing among small white crosses in an antiwar encampment named for her dead son.
To Mr. Clemons, her protest is a crushing insult to his own son, who was also killed while fighting in Iraq.
"The lady is not honoring her son's sacrifice, because we don't have a draft, and he went and signed his name on the dotted line," said Mr. Clemons, of Winchester, Tenn., whose son, Nathan, 20, was killed by a roadside bomb on June 14. "She'd better not be presenting herself as the voice of all the fallen."
Andre Lieurance, a retired naval officer whose son, Victoir, 34, was killed by a bomb just last week, said he found Ms. Sheehan so stirring that he might join her vigil at Camp Casey.
"I just want some answers about why we're over there," said Mr. Lieurance, of Knoxville, Tenn. "I don't even see the purpose anymore. It's frustrating, and I'm angry."
Though Ms. Sheehan has so far failed to persuade President Bush to meet with her in Texas, she is being closely watched by a small group of Americans who can relate to her pain, regardless of whether they agree with her. Even Mr. Bush was forced to react to her campaign when he said last week that she "doesn't represent the view of a lot of the families" of soldiers that he had met and that withdrawing from Iraq, as Ms. Sheehan has demanded, would weaken the United States.
The competing messages have raised debate among parents of the war dead, who appear as divided as the rest of the nation in their opinions of Ms. Sheehan and her quest. In interviews last week with several dozen parents of troops killed in Iraq, some said she had moved them to speak out, whether for the war or against it, while others said that her vivid protest had dashed what little peace they had found since their children died.
Most said they were trying to get on quietly with their lives, expressing their grief more subtly than Ms. Sheehan yet battling the same demons they recognize in her.
"I wouldn't have the energy to protest like her," said Patricia Marsh of Omaha, whose daughter, Tricia Jameson, 34, a medic in the Army National Guard, died on July 14 when a bomb exploded near her ambulance. "Grieving wipes you out, it takes your life away. But even if I had the energy and I was against the war, I would think I was dishonoring what my daughter gave her life for. She believed she was doing a good thing."
Even if they empathized with Ms. Sheehan, many parents said they thought the troops should remain in Iraq for now and pointed out that her son, like their children, had chosen to serve in the military. Michael Mazzarella, whose son, Anthony, 22, died on July 5, said he still admired Anthony's decision to enlist as a way to escape small-town life.
"He lived life for the moment and really didn't think about the consequences of what tomorrow might bring," Mr. Mazzarella, of Blue Springs, Mo., said. "Looking back, I don't believe that was a bad thing."
Michael Kilpela of Fowlerville, Mich., said he would like to ask Mr. Bush when he planned to withdraw the troops. But Mr. Kipela stifles the urge out of loyalty to his son, Andrew, 22, who died in June. "For me to have any negative feelings about the war would be a dishonor to my son," he said.
But other parents said they felt it was within their rights to speak up and that Ms. Sheehan's protest had emboldened them; a few expressed an anger toward the president as intense as hers, often voicing it only at the end of a conversation.
"I got cards from all kinds of politicians," said Bonnie Bolinger of Troy, N.Y., whose son, Eric Wayne Morris, 31, died in a roadside bombing in April. "I even got one from Hillary Clinton, but Mr. Bush doesn't have the time to recognize those men who died for their country."
Lawrence Tremblay of New Windsor, N.Y., said, "The quiet Americans, and there are a lot of us, need to start standing up and tell our government, 'Do this thing right.' " His youngest son, Joseph, 23, was killed by a roadside bomb in April.
Mr. Tremblay said that he began seeing a therapist after his son's death, and that the therapist had asked, "Who are you mad at?"
"A lot of people get mad at the military," he said. "A lot of people get mad at God. A lot of people get mad at everybody. I looked at her and said, 'I am not really mad at anybody.' Then a minute went by and I said, 'You know something, I am mad at somebody: George Bush. Because he lied. That's why I am mad.' "
Just as incensed, though, are parents like Gary Qualls, whose son, Louis, 20, died in Falluja last November. Mr. Qualls set up camp near Ms. Sheehan as a counterprotest.
"It didn't take me long to figure out right and wrong and what it was I believe in," said Mr. Qualls, who lives less than an hour away from Crawford in Temple, Tex. He said he was most upset that war critics were invoking his son's death, along with the 1,867 others confirmed as of Friday, as a reason for the war to end.
But even Mr. Qualls said he also felt a degree of compassion for Ms. Sheehan, who returned to Crawford on Thursday after visiting her ailing mother in California to find that her gathering had grown in her absence, with a second encampment opening a few miles away. Compared with several hundred crosses set down at "Camp Casey," Mr. Qualls had a little more than a dozen at his encampment late last week.
"I know she's hurt inside," Mr. Qualls said of Ms. Sheehan. "I know she has feelings. I have a loss myself. But truly, I think she is suffering some kind of identity crisis."
Hundreds of protesters on both sides descended on Crawford yesterday for what became the most openly hostile exchange between the two sides since Ms. Sheehan arrived in early August. The pro-war rally was as much an anti-Sheehan rally with demonstrators carrying signs that said "Bin Laden says keep up the good work Cindy" and "You are aiding terrorism."
Dwight Tipton of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., said that Ms. Sheehan's form of grieving was not constructive and that she should do something closer to home. He worked to get the names of newly fallen soldiers like his son, John, 32, added to a local war memorial. Ronald Wood Sr., of CaÃ±Ã±on City, Colo., found solace releasing a rehabilitated golden eagle in memory of his son and namesake, thinking, he said, of an Indian belief that "when you release an eagle feather into the wind it brings your prayers to God."
Marny Fasnacht of Janesville, Minn., pores over letters in which her son, Michael, 25, killed in June, wrote proudly of the war and his role in it - consoling evidence, she said, that his death served a purpose.
"I read that she questioned whether her son died for a noble cause, and I totally disagree with her on that," Mrs. Fasnacht said of Ms. Sheehan. "Her son died for the most noble cause: human rights."
Mr. Tipton, who served in Vietnam, said he felt no need to burden Mr. Bush with his grief.
"The man's got more important things to do than take care of me," said Mr. Tipton, whose son died in May 2004. Last fall, he said, when Mr. Bush's motorcade swung through his Florida town during a campaign trip, "I stood on the side of the road when he passed and I just waved at him."
Mr. Tipton learned stoicism long ago, he said, when he came home from laying land mines and blowing up bridges in Vietnam and averted a nervous breakdown by telling himself, "It's already done and nobody can fix it, so why worry about it?"
"You have to accept it and go on with your life, and that's what she's failing to realize," he said of Ms. Sheehan. "I've accepted that my boy's gone and there's nothing I can do about it. Causing traffic jams in front of the president's ranch is not going to get that young lad back. Heck, if it were going to get him back, I'd be out there with her."
Raymond Hull of Uniontown, Pa., said he saw Ms. Sheehan's efforts as more than a futile effort to bring back her son. "I think slowly, over time, people come to see exactly what's going on thanks to people like Cindy Sheehan," said Mr. Hull, whose son, Eric, 23, died in August 2003. "She might bring people to an awareness as to what is going on and the fact that the Bush administration only talks to anyone on their own terms."
Mrs. Marsh, who believes that Ms. Sheehan's protest will not significantly deepen antiwar sentiment, said she would continue supporting the war because her daughter, who died just three weeks into her tour of duty, had. While she talked, an Army major arrived at her house with two boxes of her daughter's possessions: socks, shoes, blankets, sheets, towels and eyeglasses that the mother had helped pack.
"You have to support the war," Mrs. Marsh said, "because you're an American."
Reporting for this article was contributed by Terry Aguayo from Miami; Maureen Balleza from Houston; Gary Gately from Baltimore; Anne E. Kornblut from Crawford, Tex.; Melissa Sanford from Salt Lake City; and Christine Jordan Sexton from Tallahassee, Fla.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
Wonder who can see the 'empty' words and who can see the words from the heart? Can you?