Anti-war sentiment runs hot in a cold, small state

In Vermont, which ranks first in soldier deaths per capita in Iraq, grief produces opposition to war

December 11, 2005|By JULIE BYKOWICZ | JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTER

Burlington, Vt. -- It's 5 o'clock in the evening, and the protesters are here. First two, then four. Eventually eight show up in front of the Unitarian Church on Pearl Street, even with the temperature dipping below freezing. Rush hour traffic, if you can call it that in this city of 39,000, rumbles past.

A grandmother in a cherry-red coat clasps in her mittens a dog-eared poster with the word "peace" written in permanent marker. A Quaker couple huddling nearby wield two signs, one urging prayer for war hostages (and their captors) and one with a dove and the saying, "War is not the answer!"

As the home of Ben & Jerry's "Peace Pops," and with its staunchly liberal politics, Vermont would seem unlikely to rank first among states in soldier deaths per capita from the Iraq war. Yet it does. Motivated in part by those deaths, its citizens have become among the most outspoken against the war, with dozens of towns passing resolutions opposing it and numerous public protests and peace vigils, like the one every weeknight in front of the Burlington church. But those sentiments have some grieving families feeling left out in the cold.

The state's most active war protesters take pride in saying that they questioned the war long before others in the country did. And the number of solider deaths in their state "only adds fuel to the fire," says Debra Stoleroff, a member of PeaceVermont.

"All of this news of dying," says Nancy Brown, the Vermont coordinator of the national Military Families Speak Out. "This is a liberal state, so probably all along we've had a higher percentage of people against the war, but now we've reached the tipping point."

Vermont - its 621,000 residents make it the second-least-populous state - has sent about 2,100 Vermont Army and Air Guard troops and about 1,700 service members to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past four years. Residents from 200 of the state's 251 towns have been called up to serve in the Iraq war. Seventeen servicemen from Vermont have died there, the most per capita of any state. That statistic is especially remarkable because Vermont is well outside the swath of states in the Midwest and South, where the Army has concentrated its recruiting efforts.

Maj. Gen. Martha T. Rainville, head of the Vermont National Guard and a possible candidate for the state's only U.S. congressional seat, has attended funerals for eight of her guardsmen since the war began.

Rainville believes her state has seen a disproportionate number of deaths partly because its soldiers have been fighting in some of the most unstable places in Iraq. The four Vermont guardsmen who died most recently were in Ramadi, known for its suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices.

With her headquarters about seven miles north of Burlington, a focal point for peace activism, Rainville says that with each report of a Vermont death, residents become increasingly vocal in their opposition to the war. Such activism, she says, is healthy, so long as it's respectful of the men and women who have been deployed.

"Vermonters will speak out about what they think," she says. "But we know how to agree to disagree, and we know how to pull together when we need to."

The families of the slain soldiers have mixed views of the activism. In Bennington, Dot Halvorsen, whose son died in the first weeks of the war, is grateful that people are speaking out.

"People are upset now, with so many young people dying," she says. "I think of all the phone calls to the mothers and all the men knocking on doors."

But north of the scenic Green Mountain National Forest, another mother says she has a difficult time getting into a debate about something so close to her loss.

Mindy Evnin's son was killed a day after Halvorsen's. Evnin says the anti-war sentiment running through the state and, increasingly, the nation, troubles her. Even more hurtful, she says, is the way she feels pushed by the media and some friends to oppose it.

"I'm not sure I'm against the war," she says. "Even if I were, I think it's disrespectful to my son's memory to. ... " She trails off, unsure how to finish her sentence.

Evnin says she knows she doesn't fit into Vermont and especially Burlington, where she works. She is "not an organization person." She says she'd feel uncomfortable listening to the anti-war rhetoric of some of the local groups.

"I don't see things in black and white," she says, "the way I feel a lot of other people here do."

Burlington's anti-war sentiments are particularly noticeable. Volunteers from Vermont's Peace and Justice Center have stretched a phone cord from their basement office out their front door to the brick-paved Church Street Marketplace. For two hours at lunchtime, they urge passers-by to call their legislators and ask them to bring the troops home now.

As this is going on, about a dozen University of Vermont students march past, hoisting anti-war signs and shouting their opposition to the military's recruitment efforts at college campuses.

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