CRAWFORD, Tex. — A crooked straw hat shielding her face from the relentless Texas sun, Cindy Sheehan stands on the grassy edge of a rural highway, greeting a line of cars that stretches as far as the eye can see.

The 6-foot-tall Vacaville woman who has become a public relations challenge for President Bush borrows a cell phone from a nearby well-wisher and dials a number.

"You would not believe it, there's a line of cars down a five-mile road and hundreds of them are going by," she says with a wide grin. "Ah, this is justcrazy. ... It's like an outpouring of love. I can't believe it.

On Aug. 3, after addressing the national convention for the Veterans for Peace in Dallas, Sheehan turned the despair and anger she felt after losing her son Casey in the Iraq war into a one-woman crusade to confront President Bush.

On Aug. 6 she planted herself a few miles outside of the Bush family ranch where the president is vacationing and demanded a face-to-face meeting.

Sheehan met Bush previously for 10 minutes after Casey's death in 2004, but the experience left her feeling more disillusioned, and with more questions. Now Sheehan, 48, wants him to explain why her son had to die in a war she feels is based on specious evidence. Since the beginning of her protest one week ago, she has become the voice of the anti-war movement and highlighted the growing rift in public opinion about the war.

Campsite a Mecca for peaceniks

And the campsite she set up in a ditch on the side of the Texas highway has turned into a sort of Mecca for peaceniks, grieving or concerned military families, and people from all walks of life who have been moved by her protest.


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On Saturday, the area around "Camp Casey" saw hundreds of pro- and anti-war people flow into it. Sheehan hugged and took photographs with as many of her groupies as she could.

Across the road from Sheehan and her flock, about 100 people organized by a Dallas-based conservative talk radio station, came out to support the president and his decision to keep U.S. forces in Iraq.

But by late afternoon, most of the pro-Bush people had left the site and the number of Sheehan's supporters continued to swell, and dwarfed the 10 or so pro-war demonstrators.

As protest music filled the air, Sheehan hopped up into the bed of a pickup holding a folded U.S. flag, and addressed the crowd of all ages and races that had flocked to see her.

"Who knew the end of the occupation of Iraq would begin in Crawford, Texas, last Saturday?" she said, eliciting cheers. "Who knew America would stand up and say 'We're sick of this s—, bring'em home!'"

Sheehan's soft voice cracked — she's been on a nonstop media interview schedule all week — as she explained that the hundreds of backers gathered Saturday had renewed her faith in the country she hated after Casey died on April 4, 2002, in Sadr City, Iraq.

With sheriff deputies and Secret Service agents looking on, Sheehan charged Bush with lying to rally public support for the war and said he should do "the honorable thing and resign."

"And if you don't, I will work my butt off to see you impeached," she said.

The people who arrived at "Camp Casey" from throughout the nation approached Sheehan with reverence, shyly asking for a picture or a hug. Despite the huge demand for her time, Sheehan greeted most with a smile and an embrace.

As Sheehan's story grabbed headlines nationwide, "Camp Casey" grew consistently throughout the week from two lawn chairs to a small village of tents and camper vehicles. A man from Fort Worth, Texas, donated cases of water; others sent sandwiches and fruit.

On Friday, portable toilets arrived to some cheers as busloads of well-wishers arrived.

By Saturday, a public-address system had been erected, and 842 small white crosses bearing the names of fallen soldiers in Iraq lined the side of the highway for a quarter mile.

Many on hand traveled a long way to be there. People from Maine, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Washington, Pennsylvania, New York and many other states made what has become a pilgrimage for people disillusioned with the Iraq war.

Jean Prewitt, 54, of Birmingham, Ala., came to be with Sheehan and share in her loss. Prewitt's son, Kelley Prewitt, 24, died in April, 2003, while driving an ammunition truck that was ambushed by insurgents. 

Prewitt, who voted for Bush in 2000, said the mounting evidence showing the Bush administration lied about Saddam Hussein's cache of weapons of mass destruction had changed her mind. Then she saw Sheehan on CNN and decided she had to add her support.

"I wasn't against the war when Kelley got killed. And it didn't change my mind for six months after his death," Prewitt said in a thick Alabama drawl. "But my mind changed with proof of the war's lies."

Oakland native Tiffany Strause, 29, was at work in San Diego when an e-mail arrived with a story about Sheehan.

"There was literally a physical response," Strause said. "This month has been the bloodiest month in Iraq, and I just got fed up." So Strause and a friend hopped on a plane.

As the camp has grown in size and scope, so too have the demands on Sheehan's time. Friday morning she was crouched down in a ditch, interviewing live with The Today Show. On Saturday camera crews followed her down the road to a portable toilet, where she smiled and waived as she disappeared inside.

And Sheehan is no longer sleeping in a tent but in a supporter's camper van. She has sophisticated media handlers as well. Fenton Communications, a Washington firm, has been hired by an anti-war group found by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's ice cream fame, to book her interviews.

Volunteers keep Sheehan on schedule

Volunteers from the women's anti-war group Code Pink swirl constantly around Sheehan, some wearing microphone headsets, and keeping her on schedule.

His white hair long and tied in a bandanna, Vietnam veteran Jim Goodnow, 66, met Sheehan when she addressed the Veterans for Peace convention in Dallas.

"Cindy has become the catalyst of the collective consciousness of this nation," he said, standing among more than 100 small crosses, stars of David, and Islamic crescents stuck into the ground bearing soldiers' names — a traveling project that has been dubbed Arlington West.

Iraq war veterans Tim Goodrich, 25, and Benjamin Hart Viges, 27, were so appalled by what they saw during their tours of duty, they have joined the anti-war movement.

Viges, who served in the Army in Fallujah, joined in the fight after the terrorist attacks in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. But his service in Iraq changed his mind about the war.

"To think of children killed by my mortar rounds. That is not a burden anyone should have to carry around," he said, his voice shaking.

For all of her adorers, Sheehan has been criticized by many; most notably in a letter written by members of her husband's family. Sheehan and her husband, Patrick, recently separated. The letter, signed by Casey's aunt and supposedly supported by his paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles and numerous cousins, stated Sheehan was dishonoring the name of her son by promoting her own political agenda.

"These people who wrote the letter barely knew Casey. They didn't go out of their way to know him when he was alive ... Casey would want me to help bring his buddies home," Sheehan said.

The number of pro-Bush demonstrators who appeared Friday and Saturday were comparable to Sheehan's supporters. One busload of challengers appeared Friday afternoon for about 40 minutes, but on Saturday more than 100 parked their cars about a mile down the road at the Broken Spoke Ranch. The ranch owners, who hosted the fund-raiser for Bush on Friday, allowed the president's supporters to park on their land.

Walking on the highway toward the camp the stream of pro-Bush demonstrators carried signs reading, "Ms. Sheehan Your Son Died a Hero — Let Him Rest In Peace" and "America Needs to be United, Not Divided."

Pacing on the roadside at "Camp Casey," Thomas Zapp waited for Sheehan to speak to him. Zapp lost his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Thomas Zapp, in November 2004.

"I came here to show my support for the president and the troops, who are fighting for our freedom," said Zapp, who fought back tears talking about the IED, or improvised explosive device, that killed his son.

"This is all over the radio and news. I felt she had a right to her opinion and feelings. And I want to explain my feelings and opinions to her," he said.

Perched on a chair on the side of the road, Quinn York, 55, drove two hours from Dublin, Texas, to show her support for the president. She said pulling out of Iraq is the wrong way to go.

"If they send them home, then the sacrifice of lives has been for nothing," she said.

York said she has two sons who fly planes in the Air Force in Iraq.

York said one of her sons in Iraq called her about Sheehan.

"He said 'Mom, please tell (Sheehan) that her son signed on the dotted line,'" York said, meaning Casey volunteered to serve.

Laurie Ankarlo, wife of radio host Darrell Ankarlo who organized Saturday's pro-Bush rally, said her son just returned from Iraq. She said Sheehan is not speaking for all of the mothers who lost their sons in the war. She thinks Sheehan is being used by liberal groups.

"She already had her meeting with Bush. The Left is just using her and whoring her out," she said.

As far as the president actually granting Sheehan's request for a new meeting, even many of her supporters think it is unlikely.

But Sheehan's demand has already made its mark, airing her anti-war message to an American public that polls show is increasingly opposed to the war.

Sheehan — whose lilting voice and gentle manner could disarm the harshest critic — said her first meeting with Bush was on his terms and just not good enough.

"He called the last meeting. I'm calling this meeting. I don't want sympathy, I want answers," she said.

Despite endless media interviews, Sheehan said she is feeling strong in the face of criticism and will stay outside Bush's ranch until a meeting occurs or Aug. 31 when he leaves, whichever comes first.

"The attacks have gotten to me, but I can't let them," she said with a smile. "That's just going to happen."