They were cheered and jeered in blue states and red states. Gas station clerks gave them quiet thumbs up and truck stop waitresses gave them snarls. And when the three busloads of military families arrived in Washington yesterday, the reception was just as divided.
Three weeks after leaving their dusty outpost in Crawford, Tex., and touring the country, several dozen families brought their antiwar message to the U.S. Capitol and the White House. They plan to join thousands of protesters Saturday at a march and rally on the Mall.
"Not one more!" they chanted as they walked up the West Lawn of the Capitol, referring to the number of U.S. soldiers dying in Iraq.
The "Bring Them Home Now" bus tour was born at Camp Casey, the makeshift encampment that blossomed around Cindy Sheehan when she decided to plant herself outside President Bush's ranch and demand that he talk with her about why her son, Army Spec. Casey Sheehan, 24, was killed. He died April 4, 2004, in Baghdad.
One of the buses stopped in Baltimore yesterday morning so the families could address a crowd of supporters gathered at Timothy Dean's Bistro on Eastern Avenue. People wiped away tears as they listened to soldiers' parents rail against the war that had claimed their children's lives -- or threatened to do so.
When Sheehan stepped to the microphone, the crowd pushed away from the table and stood, applauding the woman who camped in the Texas heat for 25 days.
"When I fell on the floor screaming on April 4, screaming for my son, screaming for my loss, it was too much for a mother to bear. I had skin in the game," Sheehan said.
"We love our country," she continued. "If we didn't love our country, we could pool our resources and buy an island and get away from our country."
When the group arrived on Capitol Hill in the early afternoon, dozens of reporters encircled Sheehan. Iraq war veteran Cody Camacho, a former Army specialist, took the microphone after Sheehan and joked that the news media would leave his speech "on the cutting room floor."
But he kept speaking, insisting that there is more to the movement than the quasi-celebrity status Sheehan has attained and the political debates she has incited.
"This is not about right or left. It's about right or wrong," Camacho said.
After the group converged at the Capitol, their buses fought Washington traffic toward the White House, where they delivered a letter to Bush asking him to withdraw troops.
Tourists were stunned by the media crush and the entourage that flooded Lafayette Park, and some were incensed.
"My son's a Marine! Go home, Cindy!" yelled Kathy Woods of Simi Valley, Calif., who said she has spent weeks quietly simmering over Sheehan's mission. Woods's son is stationed in Hawaii and has not served in Iraq.
"She doesn't speak for me," said Woods, a tourist, who added that she thought Sheehan was a publicity seeker.
The group of families is staying at hotels and youth hostels but plans to set up another Camp Casey -- including tents, banners and 1,800 crosses to commemorate the soldiers killed in Iraq -- on the Mall between 14th and 15th streets, where they have a permit to stay through the weekend.