Military Families React to Sheehan's Iraq Protest

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Hundreds of candlelight vigils are planned Wednesday evening across the United States in support of Cindy Sheehan, the California woman who has become the focal point of the national debate over the war in Iraq. Many military families have mixed feelings toward Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq last year.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, the latest from the Gaza Strip, where Israeli troops continue to remove Jewish settlers.

First, the lead. In cities around this country tonight, anti-war activists plan candlelight vigils in support of the war protester-mother who's camped near President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. Cindy Sheehan's son Casey, a soldier, was killed in Iraq last year. She has since become a powerful and increasingly controversial anti-war activist. But as NPR's Mike Pesca reports, many other military families say she does not speak for them.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

Cindy Sheehan, her supporters say, has moral authority because her son Casey Sheehan died in Iraq. Sherri Busch's son Andrew Riedel also died in Iraq.

Ms. SHERRI BUSCH: I think moms can be against the war. I'm not particular for any war, but I think that in this case, it's more--it's not so much against the war as it is against our government, and that's very dishonoring.

PESCA: Do you think she's being used?

Ms. BUSCH: Yes, because I could have been in her position. People could have used me had I allowed it. I focused on what my son's beliefs were, what my son was trying to do.

PESCA: Cindy Sheehan, so powerful a symbol because of her circumstances, is right there contradicted by a woman sharing her precise status. Sherri Busch isn't holding any press conferences, but now we know her opinion.

So is the tally even? Is the fulcrum of moral authority now in balance? And the next mom we asked, will she tip the scales? If we are to afford Sheehan a status as someone with potency because she is grieving, maybe we should add up all 1,800 or so grieving moms or all 10 or 20,000 grieving dads, siblings, spouses and kids, get their opinion and say this is the most pertinent poll on the war we've taken yet. What would they all say? There's no way to know, but here's a way in. MilitaryParents.com is a Web site and community founded by Tracy Della Vecchia, the mother of a Marine. She says a hundred or so Gold Star family members--meaning they've lost a son or daughter--chat on her site. That's out of the 553 Marines killed in Iraq thus far. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: MARINEparents.com is the Web site and community founded by Tracy Della Vecchia.]

Ms. TRACY DELLA VECCHIA (Founder, MarineParents.com): I'm going to guess that probably 80 to 90 percent of the folks that are in the message board community as active members probably feel some regret for the kind of publicity that Cindy Sheehan is bringing upon the troops.

PESCA: What research we have shows that military families, especially in this age of the professional military, tend to support the war. But Della Vecchia takes pains to avoid discussion of politics on her site, but with this issue, every little thing has a political connotation from the graphic of a waving flag to the very comment, `Support the troops.' Still, Della Vecchia says, it's not just Sheehan's opinion that seems atypical; it's the vocal manner in which she expresses it.

Ms. DELLA VECCHIA: You know, a grieving family member is--many, many, many times, they're going to choose to grieve in private and not grieve publicly and so they wouldn't want to be part of something like that. Her choice to bring it public is something that, you know, I feel that at some point in time down the line, my gut and my heart tell me that she'll be regretful of some of the things that she's done and said.

PESCA: On a site like MarineParent.com, it's probably easier for someone to grieve quietly because it's assumed that the Marine's service was not in vain, that the cause was righteous. But Kathleen Gilbert, an associate professor at Indiana University, studies how families, specifically military families, deal with grief. She said that it may be harder for someone with Sheehan's views to keep her pain to herself.

Professor KATHLEEN GILBERT (Indiana University): A term that I like to think of is kind of `the exaggeration principle,' the idea that you become an exaggerated version of yourself when you're under tremendous stress, and the death of a child is probably one of the most difficult things to ever happen in adulthood. And in that situation, I could see somebody really becoming very open to the idea of being public, even a very shy and quiet person becoming more open and public in their opposition to the war, because now they have a cause. They have a cause because they have to, in a sense, honor their child by opposing what they felt was a war their child should not have died in.

PESCA: Gilbert doesn't go so far as to suggest that Sheehan's activism will help with the grieving process. Sherri Busch, Andrew Riedel's mother, thinks the opposite will occur.

Ms. BUSCH: I feel sorry for her now. I'm not angry with her at all, but I feel very sorry for her because she's just lengthened her stay in this horrible grief that we all have to go through.

PESCA: Sherri Busch's point is that as a symbol, Sheehan's worth is only as the grieving mother. But Sheehan has said that mothers like her put a human face on the costs of war, so she might answer Sherri Busch by saying that because she isn't like most military mothers, that if she hadn't become the face, it would have been a betrayal of her soul. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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