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U.S.: Mothers Take Different Approaches To Honor Military Sons

Cindy Sheehan (R) of Gold Star Families for Peace walks with war veteran Dennis Kyne near the president's ranch Since the beginning of his month-long vacation in Crawford, Texas, U.S. President George W. Bush has had an unwelcome guest. Cindy Sheehan, who lives about 3,000 kilometers away in California, has been camping out near his ranch, demanding a face-to-face meeting with the president. Her son, a soldier in the U.S. Army, was killed in Iraq last year. Since then she has founded an antiwar group called Gold Star Families for Peace. In America, "Gold Star families" are those that have lost a relative in combat. Bush already has sent some aides to speak with Sheehan, but she is not satisfied, and says she won't leave until Bush himself appears. RFE/RL spoke by phone with Sheehan, as well as with another mother who has formed a group for the families of military service people.

Washington, 11 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Sheehan said she needs to hear from President Bush himself why the United States invaded Iraq more than two years ago. She also wants to know why he insists that the deaths of more than 1,800 U.S. troops have not been in vain.

If she succeeds in meeting Bush, it will be her second meeting with the president. She was among several grieving families who met last year with the president at a military installation near the northwestern U.S. city of Seattle.

It was two months after her son's death -- and came in the middle of his reelection campaign. She told RFE/RL that to her, Bush seemed unconcerned by the families' plight.

"I just don't think he [Bush] was really there. I felt he was very disconnected from what we were doing there," Sheehan said. "I believe it [the meeting] was a political ploy so he could, during the campaign, say, 'You know, I meet with families [of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq],' and, 'I feel their pain.' 'It's hard work for a president to send his troops off to fight in a war.' He just used our meetings as a political tool."

Sheehan said she didn't challenge Bush during that meeting. At that time, she said she knew nothing about reports disputing claims that Saddam Hussein had illegal weapons -- the reason Bush cited for invading Iraq.

She also said she was simply too traumatized by her son's recent death to question or contradict the president.

"The first time [I met with Bush] I was deeply in shock and grief, and I wasn't as informed as I am now," Sheehan said. "I'm not a mother in shock any more. I'm still a grieving mother, but now I'm an angry mother."

Sheehan said she is now convinced that her son died, in her words, "needlessly." And she said Bush shouldn't keep saying her son and other American troops died for a noble cause, and that for their sake America should continue the mission in Iraq.
"In our book, 'support the troops' means let them know that we're thinking about them every day, pray for them every day, send care packages and letters to them every day." -- Tracy Della Vecchia

Her own mission already is a success, Sheehan said, because it has drawn public attention to what she believes is a waste of lives in Iraq. And she said if she doesn't get to meet with Bush in Crawford before his vacation ends, she'll follow him to Washington and camp out by the White House until he speaks to her.

Tracy Della Vecchia is another mother of a military man who's fought in Iraq. He has served three tours in Iraq, and is now back at home. But the experience of having a child in Iraq prompted Della Vecchia to found an organization called Marine Parents.

The group helps provide support and practical information to U.S. Marines in Iraq, and to their families who live with the stress of having their sons and daughters in a war zone.

Della Vecchia said she believes Sheehan has the right to state her opposition to Bush's policies, especially if they led to the death of her son. But Della Vecchia said her group has a very different mission.

"Certainly she [Sheehan] has the right to say, 'President Bush, listen to me, I lost my son.' I'm very, very, very sad for her that she's lost her son, and she has the right to ask for what she wants," Della Vecchia said. "Just like all of us [in Marine Parents] have the right to say we don't do politics on our board (website). We keep politics out of it, because it's impossible to support each other if we have the politics. The difference between what she's doing and what we do is that ours is ongoing -- my son didn't die over there. And for her, the clock stopped."

Sheehan's criticism of Bush's policies contrasts with the continued support many military families still express for the war in Iraq -- even those who have lost children there. Some have echoed Bush by saying it is important for the United States to complete the mission there.
"I'm not a mother in shock any more. I'm still a grieving mother, but now I'm an angry mother." -- Cindy Sheehan

You won't hear this or any other policy opinion from Della Vecchia. She refers to bumper stickers and other signs bearing the words, "Support Our Troops." She said that many Americans might believe that such signs indicate that its owner also supports U.S. policy in Iraq.

But Della Vecchia stressed that her group acts in no way either to support or oppose that policy.

"In our book, 'support the troops' means let them know that we're thinking about them every day, pray for them every day, send care packages and letters to them every day," Della Vecchia said. "Cindy's method of supporting the troops is to say, 'Hey, Bush, bring them home.' But that takes a political stance that would degenerate the quality of a support group if we took a position one way or the other, for or against President Bush."

Della Vecchia said she is happy to have her son back home -- and safe. But she said she still draws on the support from Marine Parents, because there's no guarantee that he won't be called up for a fourth tour.