Camp Death

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

CRAWFORD -- There's a bunch of people standing across the street from the Yellow Rose, waiting to see if it'll blow up.

An hour earlier, someone called the Crawford Police Department and said the general store was going to go up in smoke. If it blows, it will incinerate the giant bell and Ten Commandments tablets displayed in front. It will destroy the cannon and red-white-and-blue horse perched upon the white cement-block structure, which looks like an old military fort.

A sheriff's deputy stands in the middle of the four-way intersection at the town's entrance. The roads are partially blocked, but there's no evacuation. Across the street, families fill the tables at a restaurant-gas station-convenience store called Coffee Station. No bomb is going to keep them from their fried chicken and burgers.

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 
Qualls.
Craig Malisow
Before you get to Camp Casey, you must pass Fort Qualls.

Vans from Camp Casey I and Camp Casey II (they're called "peace shuttles") take a side street before the four-way to drop off passengers at the Peace House.

The shuttles run all day from the camps to the tiny white house across the railroad tracks, where protesters can take a break from the camps, eight miles up the road.

Cindy Sheehan -- the military mom whose determination to meet President Bush (for a second time) resulted in her setting up camp next to his vacation home here -- has gone to Los Angeles to tend to her ailing mother. But her absence has done nothing to dampen the spirit in the camps. If anything, the movement has grown bigger each day. Steve Earle and James McMurtry performed the night before; Joan Baez was planned for tonight. Unless, of course, the Yellow Rose blows up, in which case everyone might just pack up and go home.

The bomb threat also has cleared Fort Qualls, the Camp Casey antithesis adjacent to the Yellow Rose. According to his father, Gary, Lance Corporal Louis Wayne Qualls was part of a convoy ambushed by insurgents in Fallujah in November 2004. During the silence after the firefight, the 20-year-old Qualls ran toward a series of houses to flush out any remaining attackers. Qualls startled an insurgent who was loading a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. As the insurgent fled, he was able to get off one shot, which is all you need with a grenade.

Every time Gary Qualls takes a white cross with his son's name on it from Camp Casey I's memorial, the protesters put up a new one. Gary Qualls doesn't want them using his son for their cause. But, like Cindy Sheehan's son Casey and 1,800 others, Louis Qualls is dead, and their deaths can be appropriated by anyone for any reason. That's all this is about now, regardless of what Cindy Sheehan wanted when she first came to Crawford.

Swirling around the W-is-dumb and freedom-isn't-free blather is an atmosphere of death and the giant sucking sound you get when you try to apply meaning to it.

And now there's a bomb scare, and the cameras are raised. But I'm hungry, and it looks like this is one tardy time bomb. I head into Coffee Station for a sandwich to tide me over until the explosion.


A triangular patch of dying grass and gravel separates the Camp Casey I booths and tents from a dozen or so pro-war folks.

Both sides respect the fact that the triangle is for the deputies, who are forced to stand around in long pants, maintaining the peace in 480-degree heat. Neither side yells at the other, but they both hold up big signs boasting about how many family members each has lost in various wars. It's schoolyard politics. If they did shout at each other, both sides would probably chant something like "Nyah-nyah-na-boo-boo." Because when it comes down to it, minds are made up, and it doesn't matter who has the sweeter slogan. Their picket signs might as well be blank.

Fortunately, there is one thing the factions agree on, and I am proud to be part of that bridge. Both sides hate the media. The Camp Casey I contingent flipping veggie burgers on one side of the triangle will have you know that a handful of kowtowing corporations runs the media. The media are afraid to challenge the administration, lest they get hit in the pocketbook.

On the other side of the triangle, the folks who cannot grasp the concept that Camp Casey is against the war but forthe troops will complain about the Liberal Media. The Liberal Media love to tell you how many soldiers die each day, but they leave out stuff about the electric grid and shiny new classrooms. It's a wonder anyone wants to talk to me, since they're all certain the media twist the facts. But give them the chance to talk about dead soldiers, and it's on.

The dead soldiers died so the ungrateful people at Camp Casey could have the right to protest.

The dead soldiers died for lies and oil.

The dead soldiers died to protect us from another 9/11.

How many more dead soldiers have to die?

There is so much death surrounding the triangle at Camp Casey I that it's a relief to see the giant white circus tent a few miles up the road at Camp Casey II.

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?

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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