Committee hears testimony against Iraq war

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(Host) A legislative committee heard emotional testimony today for and against the Iraq war.

National anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan urged the immediate withdrawal of American forces.

But others said a retreat now would strengthen terrorists around the world.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The audience reflected Vermont’s passions about the war. A winter storm had shut down most legislative hearings. Still, about 100 people gathered in the House chamber and heard mothers and sons, veterans and peace activists, debate a resolution that calls for the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.

(Sheehan) “Every day that we stay in Iraq brings destabilization of the region and brings us farther away from ever stabilizing that region.”

(Dillon) Cindy Sheehan said Vermonters can show support for the troops by bringing them home. Sheehan’s son Casey was killed in the war. She co-founded Gold Star Mothers for Peace and became well known for leading protests against President Bush.

(Sheehan) “I think that’s important that we say that we separate our government’s foreign policy from the actions of the troops. The troops many times join for honorable reasons. And they are asked being to do dishonorable duty.”

(Dillon) Vicki Strong from Albany, Vermont is also a Gold Star mother, a membership reserved for those whose children have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Strong handed out pictures of her son Jesse in his dress blue Marine uniform. He was killed in January 2005.

(Strong) “He was our pride and joy as a young man. I tell you that, because in spite of my loss, which is tremendous and profound, I am so proud of our military who are standing up today fighting the war on terror.”

(Dillon) Strong said she talked to her son four days before he was killed. She said he was convinced that he was making Iraq a better place.

(Strong) “And that phone call involved his pride in preparing the Iraq country for the very first election.”

(Dillon) But Iraq veterans who spoke out against the war said they had been led there under false pretenses, and made to serve as an occupying army.

(Cameron) “Democracy is not taught through the barrel of a gun.”

(Dillon) Drew Cameron of Burlington served in a field artillery regiment in Iraq. He said he was deceived about the reasons for the war.

(Cameron) “It is not an easy thing to come home from a war and realize that you were callously sent over there.”

(Dillon) Former Marine Corporal Matthew Howard said his first mission in Iraq was to secure oil fields. He does not believe he was there to foster democracy.

(Howard) “The fact of the matter is that Iraq is exponentially worse off than it was four years ago. There was no insurgency when I invaded that country. We have created that insurgency because people do not like living under foreign military occupation. These insurgents are freedom fighters. They are fighting for their country’s freedom.”

(Dillon) Retired Sergeant Matt Bedia calls them terrorists. The Iraq war veteran was a member of the Vermont National Guard’s Task Force Red Leg. In May of 2004, he was injured in a mortar attack that killed two of his fellow Vermonters.

The disabled veteran limped toward the microphone and put his Purple Heart on the table.

(Bedia) “We can win this war. We just got to let the military do what it needs to do. Bring back stability to Iraq. It will take time. Let us win this. Do not take dishonor away from us. This nonsense has got to stop because these resolutions do hurt, demoralize the troops.”

(Dillon) The hearing came three weeks after both the House and the Senate went on record against the war.

So the hearing won’t affect that resolution. But the testimony may help frame the debate for Town Meeting Day, as communities around Vermont continue to debate U.S. involvement in Iraq.

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

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