Amid grief, a dad finds meaning
'What he did matters,' Sheehan says
By Mary Sanchez, columnist for The Kansas City Star: Tribune Media Services
June 25, 2007
Poetry and lore speak of a mother's grief, a mother's tears for a deceased child. So perhaps the spotlight after her soldier-son's death in 2004 was bound to be captured by Cindy Sheehan.
For Pat Sheehan, the very private role of simply continuing to be Casey's father has been enough -- until recently, that is. In a blip of publicity Cindy Sheehan bowed out of her diminishing limelight, announcing that she would stop her activism against the Iraq war. In doing so, she declared that Casey Sheehan "did indeed die for nothing."
That statement ended Pat Sheehan's silence.
He called me after reading a column in which I disputed his ex-wife's assertion. Yes, he told me, Casey Sheehan's death mattered. We continued talking and e-mailing, and he made me realize what should have been so obvious -- that a soldier's life is what is significant, not merely his death, or the activism it might inspire.
One problematic aspect of Cindy Sheehan's celebrity has been that her deceased son got lost in the news coverage. Nobody knows much about how Casey Sheehan lived or how he died. Pat Sheehan is pained that people know so little about the religious devotion of his son. Casey Sheehan so loved his Catholic faith that he considered the priesthood, before realizing how much he wanted to be a father himself. As a child, he would pull a nightstand from against the wall, cover it with a blanket and "play" mass, enlisting his sister to be a nun.
As a teen, he earned the rank of Eagle Scout. Later, he would quip that the military was "kind of like Boy Scouts, but with guns." Casey Sheehan signed up before the Sept. 11 attacks. His service had nothing to do with revenge, his father says.
Rather, it was a way to practice his faith. Casey Sheehan wanted to be a chaplain's assistant. Faced with a wait to become one, he chose to be a wheel mechanic instead. As a soldier, he was always the first to greet a visiting priest. If no priest came to say mass, he would lead a prayer.
Pat Sheehan has only recently learned the details of his son's death from Martha Raddatz, author of "The Long Road Home," a book about the Sadr City uprising.
Sadr City, Iraq. April 4, 2004. A platoon of soldiers was ambushed by sniper fire, trapped in an alley when their Humvees broke down. Casey Sheehan was among the men who volunteered for the rescue of the dead. Actually he pulled rank, taking the place of a lowlier private. The convoy was fighting its way through more sniper fire when a high velocity bullet pierced his Kevlar helmet, then ricocheted against his head. He was put on a helicopter, doctors desperately tried to save his life. A rosary was in his pocket.
Casey Sheehan was one of eight soldiers who died that day. "He was an adult, making his own decisions when he volunteered that day," Pat Sheehan told me. "And he would do it again. Nothing can tarnish that. What he did matters."
Grief experts say that when a parent dies, a part of a person's past is taken. When a person loses a sibling, a part of their present is lost. But when a child dies, the future is stolen. That would make moving forward in life feel a bit like stepping into a vacant space. Pat Sheehan has been trying to live in that place.
After his son's death, he wondered why he never became angry. But talk with him long enough, and you'll understand that outbursts are simply not his way. His children used to hear him sigh heavily.
Pat Sheehan disagrees with his ex-wife's tactics, but he does not wish to be pitted against her. Philosophically, they are close on their views about the war. "But I would rather that Casey be viewed with dignity," he told me.
He says he misses being married, although he initiated the divorce proceedings that ended their marriage of nearly three decades. Cindy Sheehan is not, he insists, the ogre of a mother that critics portray her to be. "I wish her no ill will, whatsoever," he said.
In an e-mail, Pat Sheehan wrote: "I haven't quite found my voice yet as Casey's father, but make no mistake, I feel much of the same pain and sense of loss that his mother does. I have chosen to deal with it in my own way. For all of my children, Casey, Carly, Andy and Jane, I am attempting to move forward with a little grace and dignity. They deserve nothing less."