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MONTPELIER, VT. – The state that has lost the most troops per capita became the first to pass a resolution calling on Congress and the president to immediately withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq.
On Feb. 13, the ghosts of war linked Vermont’s snow-covered hills to a bloodied and foreign land. Many of the lawmakers, seated in a tight horseshoe under a high white arch, invoked their personal connection to wars – one decades done and another currently raging thousands of miles away. Both sides of the heated but decorous debate argued that their position best supported the troops, some of whom were their close relatives.
A group of Iraq veterans, looking terribly young next to the legislators, sat at the front of chamber on red-velvet backed chairs; the mother of another Iraq vet suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome sat with them. They were introduced to a round of applause during which a few legislators remained seated and silent.
“I did not mean disrespect,” said Rep. Joseph Krawczyk, who sat with his hands on his lap during the applause. The bearded and craggy Republican was a career soldier and is a Vietnam War veteran with a daughter on her third tour in Iraq. “I know from personal experience the effect of a message like this [can have] on our armed forces. … The words say, ‘We can’t win.’ “
Matt Howard, a former Marine corporal in Iraq, read the 95 – 52 vote differently. The message is aimed at “our country and the federal government,” said the Vermonter after watching the debate. “The people on the ground know the reality of the situation. They know what’s going on and they know the policy has failed. And they know that their presence is inflaming the insurgency.”
While opponents of the resolution hammered the “wrong message” theme, none mentioned support for the president, or defended the wisdom and legitimacy of the war.
Proponents of withdrawal touched on the economic and geopolitical costs of a failed policy. But they emphasized, as Democratic Rep. Sue Minter put it, “The best way to support the troops was to bring them home from countries where they are seen as occupiers not liberators as they were promised.”
“While in Vietnam, I and many others in my unit wanted to go home as soon as possible because our mission goals were undefined,” said Democratic Rep. John Zenie. “We hoped that protests at home would lead to our going home. … I wish that more people would have protested sooner back then so that I and my fellow soldiers could have come home even if one day sooner.”
The debate belied Vermont’s reputation as a liberal monolith. While the legislature is currently controlled by Democrats, the governor is a Republican and public opinion is sharply divided over civil unions, taxation, land use and, of course, the war.
In a nod to “coming together” politics, some Democrats voted to delete the strongest passage in the withdrawal resolution: “The presence of American troops in Iraq has not, and will not, contribute to the stability of that nation, the region, or the security of Americans at home or abroad.”
While the deletion was pure politics for some, it made all the difference to Republican Rep. Patricia O’Donnell, whose son is serving in Iraq. O’Donnell at first opposed the call for an immediate and orderly withdrawal. “I know what it is like to hate this war,” she said, to hear of casualties and “think, please, don’t let it be my son and to feel relief when the military does not knock on my door, and then the guilt knowing it was someone else’s son.”
After the compromise language passed, she became one of two Republicans to cross party lines and join the call for bringing the troops, and her son, home.
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