Base concerns add to shelving of Guard study

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(Host) Concern over a military base in Chittenden County played a role in a House vote to shelve a study of the National Guard.

Almost two weeks ago, members of the National Guard quietly worked the phones to convince lawmakers that the resolution could threaten the Air Guard base in Colchester.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Fifty-two communities on Town Meeting Day called for a legislative study of the role of the National Guard following the large-scale deployments for the Iraq War.

The Town Meeting votes gained national attention. A House committee hammered out a compromise study that removed all references to the Iraq War. The study would have looked at the impact on emergency services at home, and if guard members keep jobs and benefits when they’re deployed.

But when the House met on the first Saturday in June, lawmakers quietly killed the National Guard study.

Representative Tim Jerman, a Democrat from Essex Junction, says he heard from a key Air Guard general who lives in his district.

The freshman Democrat said that Brigadier General Wiliam Etter called and told him that support for the resolution could threaten the Air Guard operation in Vermont. The air base in Colchester recently survived the first round of a national base closings review. But Jerman says the general told him that could change.

(Jerman) “He was very concerned that the process is not done yet, we’ve been spared through the first round, but that it’s still a very fierce competition. And he was concerned that any language, in any resolution, at this point might be construed by others out of this state as a negative toward the Air Guard.”

(Dillon) Other guard members also called their representatives. And by the time the issue came up for a vote, Republican and Democrats joined forces to send it back to committee.

Representative Francis Brooks is a longtime lawmaker from Montpelier who chairs the House Military and General Affairs Committee. The panel held a number of hearings on the resolution. Brooks says the guard didn’t raise the issue of base closings during committee testimony.

(Brook) “Initially there was just a feeling expressed that we don’t like it, somehow this was going to be a detrimental, but nothing else. Then after a couple of hearings it was stated that the Guard didn’t like it because someone might say something negative about the Guard at these public hearings. And it just moved from source to source to source, the last one being this last minute effort.”

(Dillon) Assistant Adjutant General William Noyes says guard officials did warn several times about the possibility of base closings. But he says many lawmakers thought that was a scare tactic.

He says after the Town Meeting Day votes in March, senior military leaders questioned whether Vermont was the best place to keep Air Guard operations. He said the issue surfaced again after the Colchester base survived the first round of base closing review.

(Noyes) “There are many states that are fighting the decision to close or realign bases in their states. And there were some concerns expressed at some levels that maybe Vermont would be a place to maybe look at some changes to what was originally planned.”

(Scotch) “I think it’s a very questionable use of military influence in a civilian matter.”

(Dillon) Ben Scotch, a lawyer and activist who worked on the resolution in the Statehouse, says he’s concerned that the last minute lobbying effort effectively stifled public debate.

Scotch says the country has always been able to strike a balance between a strong military that’s overseen by a civilian government.

(Scotch) “This type of episode really calls that delicate balance into question. And I really hope it’s the last time this will have occurred.”

(Dillon) But the Guard says its members were simply exercising their rights in a democracy to talk to their lawmakers. The Guard issue may come back before the Legislature in January.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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