Close Encounters of the Bush Kind
We were a little late getting to the bus the next morning because at first we couldn't get Andy up -- either by phone or by knocking on his door. When we boarded the bus we were greeted by approximately sixty people, making up fourteen or fifteen families like ours. All the others had the same sad look around their eyes. There was no jocularity or singing on this bus.
I met a young woman whose husband had been blown to vapor and they'd recovered nothing of him to bury. His mom and dad were also on the bus. They were so hurt and fragile.
But sitting right in front of me was another woman whom I have grown to dislike very strongly. I soon found out that she was the stepmother of a soldier who was killed, but she introduced herself and her husband as the parents of "Ed." She then pointed out another woman who she said was Ed's "sort of foster mother"-- who I found out later was Ed's real mother. The first woman was his stepmother, who didn't have a very good relationship with Ed before he was killed. But ever since he was killed, she has been a tireless supporter of the war and the president. She is so "brave and valiant" to keep her chin up after her stepson was killed.
This stepmother and her husband became active participants in one of the most bizarre protests in history: The "Cindy doesn't speak for me" tour. I can't believe that these people's views, beliefs, and intellect are so wee that they can't even have a "We speak for ourselves" tour. Ed's real mother, who is very antiwar and anti-Bush, is in my organization and her heart aches every time this woman claims Ed as her own and exploits his name and sacrifice to prop up the president and his misguided war.
We arrived at Fort Lewis about forty-five minutes after we left the hotel. Then we had to stand in the parking lot of the post hospital, where the meetings were to occur, for another hour because they weren't ready to let us in yet. I was beginning to feel the Washington State "heat wave" more acutely as we stood on asphalt without shade or water.
This interlude, though, is when I found out that my soon to be new friend was Ed's mother, not his "sort of foster mother." I found out that she was even more deeply opposed to George Bush and the war than I was at the time. Her son was KIA back in 2003, so she'd had a little more time to ponder the reasons and lies. She even had a letter that she wanted to give George, accusing him of lying and taking our country to war for oil. Damn it, I thought to myself, I wish I had thought of that!
My new friend "Donna" requested, and received, a meeting with George Bush that was separate from the one with her flag-waving, red-white-and-blue-wearing ex-husband and his wife. She gave the letter to one of the president's aides and waited in a room by herself until George had met with all of the other families. I wish to recount her meeting before I recount ours. Then maybe, dear reader, you won't be so horrified by our little "tea party" with George.
Donna was waiting in her little curtained-off area for the president to appear. When he did, he strode right up to her and put his face an inch from hers -- there they stood, nose to nose, and Donna, God bless her, did not back off. He sneered at her and said in his most intimidating (he thinks) voice, "I'm George W. Bush, I am president of the United States, and I hear you have something to say to me."
Donna looked him squarely in the eye and said, "You bet I do."
She then went on to outline her grievances against him, asking the question that I would try to ask George a year later: "Why did my son have to die?"
Donna told him that Ed had a good life and if he had lived, he would have been a productive and wonderful citizen of our society. Then Bush said the coldest thing to her that I have ever heard. After Donna got through talking about her dear boy, George, unbelievably and incredibly, said, "If your son came home from Iraq alive, how do you know he would have had a good life?"
When Donna told me that, I wondered how she didn't slap him or spit in his face. President or not, that was a rude and coldhearted and pitiless thing to say. She said she was too shocked to even say anything in reply.
Our meeting with George was disturbing, but it took us a while to realize it because we were still in too much shock at the time to process it.
We were moved from a big room in the post hospital to a little room with a couch, chair, a coffee table, and a fake potted tree. The room was a curtained-off space that was barely big enough for the five of us. I had brought five pictures of Casey, ranging from when he was a baby to when he was a big soldier man.
The smiling pictures of a cheerful and chubby-cheeked baby break my heart. Why did I let my sunny, wonderful boy join Uncle Sam's army? The pictures of Casey when he was a beautiful boy are heartbreaking, too. Then he became an awkward teenager -- tall and skinny and all "asses and elbows," as I used to say to him -- with braces and acne, to boot! When the braces came off and the acne cleared, he was a handsome young man.
So we were sitting in this tiny room at Fort Lewis with the pictures of Casey on the coffee table. The scene was like some tragic and smaller version of our home and our decimated family. We were nervously waiting for George Bush to appear -- when in walked Arizona senator John McCain.
The events that I am about to relate were later disputed by John McCain, but I know they are the truth. Up to that point in my life, I had never even met one senator, let alone one with the stature of John McCain, and I treasured what he said to us.
The senator was very personable and he sat right down on the couch and complimented the girls on how pretty they were and on how handsome Andy was -- he called us all by our first names -- then he looked at the pictures of Casey and had tears in his eyes.
I asked McCain why Casey had to die, and he told me, "Well, Cindy, I am afraid it's going to be for nothing, like my buddies in Vietnam." I was stunned by his openness and honesty, but I deeply appreciated it. However, he denies having said this.
We chatted with some small talk and then he asked us if there was anything else he could do for us and I said, "Yes, you can run with Senator Kerry as his vice president." He chuckled and said, "Anything but that, Cindy. The country is too divided as it is." Senator McCain remembers this exchange. We had quite a spirited talk about this, our first meeting, when I met with him again in his Washington, D.C., office in September.
I had a lot of respect for Senator McCain, and I love what he did in the Senate to try to limit George and Dick's reign of torture. But after what the Rove team did to John McCain during the 2000 campaign when they smeared him and tried to aver that he had a black baby and demeaned his war record as a prisoner of war in Vietnam -- trying to make him look as if he gave up national secrets under torture -- then John McCain bends over and lets George Bush kiss him. He even campaigned for Bush in 2004. That's when I lost respect for the senator, but in June 2004, I still had a lot of regard for him. Now, with the senator's unending support for another Vietnam-style war, I fear that every shred of goodness and humanity in him has been lost.
After the senator left our little "living room," we looked at each other, and Carly said, "I wonder if he is the president's warm-up act." And Pat said, "I wonder what Casey has in store for us next."
After what seemed like hours, the curtain finally opened and in walked George. I was face-to-face with the devil, but I didn't even know how monstrous this person really was yet.
The president of the United States of America, arguably the most powerful man in the world, walked into the room wearing a blue suit that looked straight off a Wal-Mart rack. His entire tone was one of being at a tea party, and the first thing he uttered was, "So, who are we honorin' here?"
We all looked at one another in disbelief, and later, when we compared notes, we couldn't believe that the so-called leader of the so-called free world didn't even know Casey's name. And unlike the senator, he didn't know our names, because right before George entered they had us take off our name tags. I think this was to make it a better photo op, but I'm not really sure. At the very least, we couldn't believe that an aide didn't whisper, "Mr. President, this is the Sheehan family. Their son, Specialist Casey Sheehan, was killed in Iraq."
So we told him who we were and who we were "honorin'." We are still not sure who he honors, and I am not sure we really want to know.
I tried to get George to look at the pictures that we had brought of Casey, but he wouldn't. We tried to talk about Casey and what a valuable member of our family he was, but he didn't want to hear it. He didn't want to know anything about Casey, and I feel he didn't want to see the face of someone his lies killed. I believe George does not want to humanize his cannon fodder, or bullet sponges, as the soldiers call themselves.
At one point he approached Carly and said, "Who are you to the loved one?" (He always called Casey the "loved one.") Carly replied, "Casey was my brother."
George then said a very stupid thing, which he is famous for: "I wish I could bring your loved one back to fill the hole in your hearts."
"So do we, Mr. President," Carly agreed. At which point he gave her what Carly says was the "dirtiest look I ever received from another human being" and said to her, "I'm sure you do." Then he dismissed Carly with a turn of his back and never spoke to her again for the rest of the meeting.
We had some presidential small talk. He wanted to know what we did for a living and was particularly interested in Andy's career as a surveyor. We took some pictures with him, and he said to the kids, "Take care of your mama, she has a very sweet soul."
Then he approached me for our infamous exchange. He took my right hand in both of his and said, "Mom" -- he called me Mom -- "I can't imagine losin' a loved one. Whether it is an aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, brother, sister . . ."
Before he could go through the entire litany of how Casey could be related to me without actually saying the word son, I stopped him and said, "Mr. President" -- that's when I still called him that -- "Casey was my son. I think you can imagine it -- you have two daughters -- try to imagine one of them being killed." I saw a brief flicker of humanity in his eyes, then it was gone. I said, "Trust me, Mr. President, you don't want to go there."
And he said, "You're right, I don't."
At least, and I think for the first time, he was honest. I was stunned at his coldhearted statement and all I could mutter was, "Well, thanks for putting me there."
George Bush stammered some things about everyone on earth deserving "freedom and democracy" and slobbered something else about "expressing the thanks of a grateful nation." Trust me, we didn't say "You're welcome." Then as fast as he swept in, the tea party was over.
When I say George pretended to have compassion it is because everything he said did not match his eyes. Speaking to him was like speaking to someone who is disconnected from reality. It is very disconcerting to talk to people when the heart light of their eyes does not match what they are saying.
It was a very disordered event, not quite but almost as disordered as burying a child.
One of the things I asked him when we were speaking was, "Why were we invited here? We didn't vote for you in 2000 and we are certainly not going to vote for you this year!" His answer to me was, "Mom, this is not about politics." For some unknown but totally forgivable reason I believed him. That is, until the Republican National Convention, when he betrayed my trust again.
In his acceptance speech for the nomination for president, he said something like, "I meet with the families of the fallen. I feel their pain. They tell me that they are praying for me and to complete the mission in Iraq so their loved ones don't die in vain." That is what tore it for me. He told me he wasn't meeting us for political reasons, but that's exactly what it was for. The so-called commander in chief doesn't allow the showing of images of flag-draped coffins coming home from Iraq nor has he attended a single funeral.
He was trying to assure the nation that he had compassion. He was trying to tell the nation that we wanted more children killed just because Casey was dead.
Again, and again, and again, and again, he was lying. That's when I decided to become involved in the 2004 presidential campaign. Not to campaign for John Kerry, but to campaign against George Bush.
Copyright © 2006 Cindy Sheehan
Author Cindy Sheehan, mother of the late Specialist Casey Sheehan, U.S. Army, is cofounder of Gold Star Families for Peace, an organization devoted to families who have lost loved ones in Iraq.