Originally published in September 2005.
While Casey Sheehan, the 24 year-old soldier who was killed a year and a half ago in Iraq, isn’t the only deceased member of the military to put a human face on the Iraq War, the futility of the U.S. occupation there is now in sharper relief because of the efforts of his grieving, emboldened mother, Cindy. Throughout August, Cindy Sheehan took up residence outside of George Bush’s vacation ranch in Crawford, Texas imploring Mr. Bush to meet with her to explain what exactly her son died for. Mr. Bush refused. Now Casey’s mom is on a 25-state peace tour in her quest for answers about the continuing bloodbath that has taken the lives of nearly 1,900 U.S. military and uncounted thousands of Iraqis. Cindy Sheehan’s maternal voice awakened in MRC Executive Director Rob Okun, a father of four, thoughts about Casey. Rob found himself wondering recently what Casey would have to say if he were alive today.
I looked up from the table where my family and I were eating supper on our cozy deck and spied Casey looking healthy and relaxed. He had on a t-shirt bearing the legend “Camp Casey: Where We Patrol for Truth.” On his chest he wore a button featuring a smiling photo of his mother. On its inner edge were the words “Stop Hijacking Our Democracy!”
He ambled over to where my wife and our 17-year-old son, and three daughters, age 20, 24, and 27 were seated around the table. Without introduction, Casey began talking. “I wish those high and mighty commentators would stop talking trash about my mother,” he said, eyeing us with a familiarity I couldn’t explain. “They don’t understand her a whit!”
“What do you mean?” I asked, motioning for him to pull up a chair and join us for supper.
“When a parent loses a child when they’re young like I was, something happens to them. It’s a test of their spirit and it’s a torment to their heart. But it can also focus their energy, their commitment. They want to keep the memory of their loved one alive, so they will themselves to find meaning in their dead child’s life.
“For my mother,” he continued, serving himself salad, “it’s about more than that. Of course it started out about my memory, but now it’s about a much bigger truth than me or my life—it’s about the lives of all the soldiers who’ve died and the ones still living who she wants to see come home safely. And it’s about the Iraqis caught in the middle.” He stopped for a moment, summoning up his next words.
“I died for nothing,” he spat out bitterly, looking from face to face to face around the table, lingering on our son, a senior in high school. “Not for a cache of weapons never found, not for terrorist cells never in the country. I died defending fear!”
We all had put down our forks and stopped eating. Six pairs of eyes were on this earnest young man.
“We couldn’t admit after 9/11 that we were afraid, that we felt vulnerable. That we were scared about what might happen. A lot of guys like me joined the military after 9/11 but nobody ever talked to us about how we felt, just that we going to get revenge—that ‘no punk terrorists were going to pull a stunt like that and get way with it.’
“From my vantage now I can see a lot clearer. It’s amazing what you begin to feel when you are together with 1900 guys who were killed. You know we all live together, don’t you?” He sensed that the idea that all the U.S. war dead were together was new information for us.
“It’s funny that the gathering that grew up around my mother was called “Camp Casey” because where I live now the name changes every day so that everybody gets a turn: ‘Camp Francisco, Camp Ethan, Camp Louie, Camp Jesus…’ With 365 days in a year it’ll take five, six years for everybody to get a turn. If no more were to die.”
Casey sighed and he was quiet. When he spoke it was in a hoarse whisper. The previously poised young man began to look ashen, as if the weight of his words, like the deaths of so many of his fallen comrades, was bearing down on him.
“I wish I could cry,” he said. “I wish George Bush could cry. I wish the generals and the colonels could cry and the majors and the captains and the lieutenants. I wish the sergeants and the corporals and the privates could all cry. I wish we could stand across the road from Iraqi families with their dead all around them and cry together. I wish we could cry and cry and cry and that our tears would grow into a river that could wash us all clean. I wish this river of tears could wash through dusty roads in Texas and from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other, and to the roads leading to the Pentagon in Virginia. I wish that everyone in this country and in Iraq, and the other countries in the Middle East, and in Africa and Asia, Europe and South America—everywhere could wash their hands in those salty tears, dunk their heads in them, immerse their whole bodies in them. Like a baptism.”
Casey’s own tears came then, building from quiet sobs, growing stronger, until his whole body began to heave and his cries were shrieks punctuated by gasps for air. Gently helping him to his feet we encircled him, taking turns holding him, tenderly stroking his soft hair. After several moments he grew calmer, began to compose himself. He drank a glass of water and color returned to his face. He looked at each of us with warm, accepting eyes. After a few more minutes of silence, he began readying to leave.
“What are you going to do now?” I asked him, as he stood up.
“I’m going to join my mother. She needs me. She needs to know I can cry now.”
It was dusk, the last light of an early September evening growing faint. We stood together as his figure cross the yard—an American family watching and waiting, well after the image of Casey Sheehan had faded into the night.