Camp Death

The site of Cindy Sheehan's war protest is crowded with opinions and ghosts

This camp is closer to Bush's ranch and sits on property owned by Fred Mattlage, a distant cousin of Bush neighbor Larry Mattlage, who scared protesters last week by firing his shotgun in the air in front of them. He said he was preparing for dove season.

Camp Casey II is where the action is. They have port-a-potties and a big free buffet with cold iced tea and lemonade. And on Saturday night, before McMurtry and Earle take the stage, family members of dead soldiers tell their heart-wrenching stories. They talk about how Bush has time for bicycling, but not for talking to Cindy. Cindy's name is holy here; it always gets a round of applause.

Tammara Rosenleaf of Helena, Montana, is the first to speak. She moved to Texas to be close to her husband, awaiting deployment from Fort Hood. Her speech is emblematic of Cindy's purpose. She says she has a book of phone numbers for the plumber, electrician, etc., so she knows who to call in case of a minor household emergency. But there's no number in her book telling her who to call if her husband's killed. Who does she talk to then?

Cindy's supporters opened Camp Casey II on land 
closer to W.'s ranch.
Craig Malisow
Cindy's supporters opened Camp Casey II on land closer to W.'s ranch.
Before you get to Camp Casey, you must pass Fort 
Craig Malisow
Before you get to Camp Casey, you must pass Fort Qualls.

And that's why Cindy says she's here. She and other family members of dead soldiers met with Bush in Seattle last year, but she says she wants an opportunity to ask him a specific question: Why did my son die?

On Sunday, I ask Rosenleaf if there's even an answer.

"I think that there could be," she says. "I think that Mr. Bush knows why he's really in Iraq."

The folks at Camp Casey don't want any old answer to Cindy's question. They want the answer they want to hear.

They wouldn't want Gary Qualls's answer, which is that Casey Sheehan died for America's freedom and Iraq's liberty. And Qualls wouldn't like Rosenleaf's answer, just like he doesn't like the fact that gay rights groups have aligned with Cindy, because he says gay people are not equal.

And both sides will fight over where Lance Corporal Louis Qualls's white cross should stand. Depending on who plants that little piece of wood, they'll either be explaining why he died, or they'll be asking.

Walking into Coffee Station, the first person I see is George W. Bush.

The cardboard makes him look smaller, but that grin is unmistakable. He's right next to the candy stand, as if to say, "Sorry about the bomb scare, partner. Here's a Snickers. I hear it really satisfies."

I pass on the candy and leave Coffee Station with a sandwich and tater-tots. But I'm barely two tots in when the deputies and police give the all-clear. People straggle back into the Yellow Rose and Fort Qualls. As a reporter from the Waco NBC affiliate interviews the Crawford police chief, a guy holding a big American flag clangs the bell in front of the Yellow Rose.

The guy probably considers it the sweet clarion call of liberty, and it's probably why the dead soldiers died, but it's also loud and obnoxious. It seems like a good time to leave Crawford. Sure, there's a bomb scare and Joan Baez, but not much else is going on.

A 24-year-old man named Casey Sheehan and a 20-year-old man named Louis Qualls were killed in combat, five months apart. The father of one says he understands why; the mother of one says she doesn't. When whatever's going on here is over, both parents will go home and grieve for the rest of their lives. At some point, their sons will cease to be symbols, and maybe then they can rest in peace.

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