Vermont towns see Iraq war as local issue

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Note: This story aired on National Public Radio.

(Host) In Vermont, almost 50 towns have opposed the use of the National Guard for the war in Iraq. The votes came during the state’s traditional grass-roots meetings in which the hot topics are usually school budgets or the purchase of a new town truck. But this year, the Iraq War was a local issue too.

From Vermont Public Radio, John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The town of Calais, about 10 miles outside the capital of Montpelier, has a personal connection to the Iraq war. National Guard Sergeant Jamie Gray was killed in Iraq last June.

Town Moderator Gus Seelig asked the 200 or so gathered to remember Gray and others for their service to the community.

(Seelig) “I would just like to ask if we might take a moment to reflect on them and the other folks we’ve lost.”

(Dillon) The voters of Calais have met 223 times for their annual meeting. As in other Vermont towns, residents themselves act as a town-wide Legislature. It’s a direct and intensely local form of democracy. This year, the big budget item in Calais was $45,000 to buy a used excavator for the road department.

But Vermont town meetings have tackled national and even international issues as well. In the early 1980s, dozens of communities voted for a freeze on nuclear weapons. Two years ago, many towns used their meeting to condemn the USA Patriot Act.

So for many Vermont voters, debating the U.S. war in Iraq wasn’t all that unusual. And in Calais, the discussion segued seamlessly from town business to foreign policy. Moderator Seelig read from the resolution

(Seelig) “Resolved that the town requests that the General Assembly of the State of Vermont, exercising its power under Chapter 2, Section 59 of the Vermont Constitution, to investigate and discuss whether members of the Vermont National Guard have been called to active service and assigned to duties relating to the war in Iraq in conformity with U.S. Constitution and federal laws….”

(Dillon) Resident Eric Oberg spoke in favor.

(Oberg) “This is a way that we as a community can have ourselves heard. I feel we have not been heard. And this is our chance, so let’s make the most of it.”

(Dillon) Vermont has paid a heavy toll in the Iraq war; it has lost more soldiers per capita than any other state, and almost half its National Guard force has been mobilized. The Iraq war resolution says the state should examine whether the deployments have hurt the ability of the Guard to respond to emergencies at home.

But John Russell, a Vietnam veteran, told the assembly that the resolution would undermine the morale of the troops.

(Russell) “I can tell you what it’s like to see bodies piled up like cords of wood. I can also tell you what it’s like not to feel supported. I can tell you the complete desperation of total loneliness, like being in a tomb, when people say, ‘We support you,’ but they don’t really.”

(Dillon) In Calais, the resolution passed, as it did in 46 other Vermont communities. Three towns voted against it.

The resolution’s organizer, Ben Scotch, says other states are looking to Vermont as an example of how to work locally against the war.

(Scotch) “Where should that discussion be in formulating a policy about the use of this kind of war? It should be in the grassroots. It has begun in the grassroots today. And we hope it spreads.”

(Dillon) Organizers hope the resolution will push the state Legislature to take up the issue of the Iraq war and its impact on the Guard.

For NPR News, I’m John Dillon.

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