Brattleboro rallies around family of slain soldier

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(Host) The escalating violence in Iraq means escalating worry for many Vermont families. Members of a community may have different politics regarding the war, but when it comes to friends and neighbors overseas, folks come together.

Especially when there’s been a loss, as VPR’s Susan Keese reports.

(Keese) In a room in the Brattleboro VFW, members of the Gilbert family and the Yellow Ribbon Support Group are planning a jamboree. The bands and raffle prizes, even the printing on the posters, have been donated for a good cause. It’s to raise money for a plaque honoring Kyle Gilbert of Guilford, the first and so far only local soldier to die in combat in Iraq.

(Gilbert) “How many do you want, a hundred? Ten. You want some Lynn?”

(Keese) Gilbert’s father, Robert, hands out posters that show a bright-eyed, dark-haired youth with a mischievous grin. Gilbert was 20, a private first class in the armed infantry. He died in Baghdad pulling another soldier to safety.

The community was galvanized by the death of a recent Brattleboro High School graduate. Local people poured out onto the sidewalks as the hearse passed by with his body. Town officials later voted to name a bridge at the end of Main Street in Kyle’s honor. That’s where the plaque will go. Robert Gilbert says the local response has been helpful, and a little surprising.

(Robert Gilbert) “Because Vermont is more anti- than pro. It’s more-“
(Regina Gilbert) “Antiwar.”
(Robert Gilbert) “I mean, you’ve seen the rallies at the post office and around the common.”
(Regina Gilbert) “I think that they all come together when it gets right down to business, and they look out for the people around them who they live with and grew up with. They’re still going to support the families.”

(Keese) The Gilberts’ living room in Guilford is full of mementos and photos of their son: karate trophies, prom photos, and medals.

Robert Gilbert, a self-employed plumber, was in the armed infantry himself during peace time. He’s disturbed by the rising casualties.

(Robert Gilbert) “But I believe we’re doing the right thing. My opinion is that if we just leave there the way it is, it’s a slap in the face for everybody that’s been there.”

(Keese) Regina Gilbert seems more frustrated by what she describes as a lack of straight answers from Washington. The nine-eleven commission hearings upset her.

(Regina Gilbert) “Because I knew on September 11, I knew in the back of my mind that we would be going to war within the next year, year and a half. And I knew Kyle would be a part of it. I just knew it. And to find out, allegedly, that they knew it could happen and not try to prevent it. Why didn’t anybody try to do anything about it?”

(Keese) Gilbert points to a photo of her son on a Baghdad rooftop letting some Iraqi kids try his night vision. She’s certain Kyle believed he was in Iraq to help people and bring them hope.

(Regina Gilbert) “I just want answers. Is that really why we went in, to help them? If that’s the answer, tell me and I’ll feel much, much better. But is it money, is it really weapons of mass destruction? Is it just because somebody needed to be blamed for 9-11? Tell us. I think we should know.”

(Keese) Gilbert says it helps to stay busy memorializing her son and working with the Yellow Ribbon group. The group runs a restricted access Web site where soldiers and their families and friends can share their feelings and thoughts as well as information. They currently send care packages to 45 soldiers from the Brattleboro area.

(Regina Gilbert) “The weather changes and they have newsletters going out saying all right this is what the guys will need or the women will need.”

(Keese) It also brings people together. Sitting in a corner in the meeting room is Wendy Brown. Her son Jordan Sorrell enlisted with Kyle, right out of high school. Two weeks after Kyle’s funeral, Sorrel was shot. He’s currently at Walter Reed Hospital, working to regain the use of his nerve-damaged arm. Tonight, someone has brought her a bouquet. Brown is proud of her son.

(Brown) “He’s been through a lot. And I appreciate when people recognize and know that and appreciate what my son has done for them, for the country.”

(Keese) One of the happiest people at the meeting is Donny Elliot. He’s here with his son Dan, back from 13 months in Iraq.

(Donny Elliot) “A lot of times it would be a month and you wouldn’t hear anything. Every morning you turn on the radio and you’d hear, two soldiers got killed. So then I’d go on the Internet and try to figure out which unit it was. I pray a lot.”

(Keese) Elliot says the media focus too much on the bad news. His son says many Iraqis want to work with the U.S. to establish a democracy.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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