(Host) Hundreds of Vermonters have been called away from their families and jobs for long – and often dangerous – duty in the Iraq war. At home and overseas, these Vermonters are coping with longer absences than they anticipated. They’ve experienced first-hand the changing role of the Guard and Reserves.
Today, in the first of three parts, VPR’s Susan Keese examines this new reality.
(Sounds from a baseball game.)
(Keese) It’s a typical May evening on the ball field at Barre Town Elementary-Middle School. But some things are different. For one thing, Greg Hitchcock isn’t on the sidelines cheering on his eight year old stepson, Ryan.
Hitchcock is one of nearly 200 National Guardsmen from northern Vermont’s 86th field artillery serving in Iraq. Now they’re escorting convoys in armored Humvees. In peace time Hitchcock is an engineer technician with the state Agency of Transportation.
(Cathy Jamieson) “There’s probably a crook in Route 7 in Pittsford that’s not getting straightened out because that’s what his job was at AOT.”
(Keese) Cathy Jamieson, Hitchcock’s wife, says her husband is sincerely committed to the Vermont Guard.
(Jamieson) “Although he may not agree with the political reasons why we’re there, I think he’s hopeful that he can help a country that’s in need of being restored.”
(Keese) But Jamieson never expected he’d be gone this long or that she’d have to live with this kind of anxiety.
(Jamieson) “You know, you would think 18 months time period would be more fulltime active military.”
(Keese) But that’s the way this war is being fought. After Vietnam, the U.S. military became more reliant on part-time forces. During the ’90s the full-time military was whittled down to a smaller, high-tech fighting force. Certain specialties, like military policing and engineering, were heavily invested in the National Guard and reserves. Now those policies are being tested.
In a state where people connect in so many ways, Jamieson says the mobilizations are keenly felt.
(Jamieson) “There are these gaps that are left behind – not only in the work force, but in families, in Little Leagues. I’m sure some of the folks that got called up were coaches.”
(Keese) One of those gaps is at the school on the other side of the ball field. Bill Normandy was a much-loved bus driver there. He died of a heart attack in Kuwait while waiting to go to Iraq. Normandy was 42. He’d been in the Guard almost 20 years. He’d never seen active duty until last winter.
Even though Normandy’s death wasn’t technically war-related, Barre Town Principal Ted Riggen says the kids took it hard.
(Riggen) “We have a number of parents and extended family members who are currently serving in the National Guard, who are not at home. And Mr. Normandy’s death rippled out in many other ways with families of those who also have loved ones. So the grief is kind of compounded and made scary.”
(Keese) Normandy’s sister Stacy Cadorette believes he could have gotten out of active duty. He had sole custody of three of his four children. But Cadorette says her brother loved the Guard and believed in what he was doing. He also saw it as an opportunity. For Normandy, active duty meant a pay raise.
(Cadorette) “So he was saving- actually I was doing all his finances and we were going to invest the money so that after he got home he could buy he and his kids a home. And he wanted to furnish it and- just all the things he’ll never do.”
(Keese) Dan Orton was due to leave the Guard last April. He and Heidi Orton were planning a summer wedding. The invitations had already been printed when, just before Christmas, Dan was called to active duty.
(Heidi Orton) “So we got married downstairs at the VFW.”< (Keese) Heidi Orton has made new friends through the Guard's family support network. Orton says she doesn't believe in a fist fight, let alone war. But when the families get together they don't talk politics. (Orton) “And now I know I’m not the only person who sits home at night or waits till the last second to go to bed so you don’t lay awake and cry.”
(Keese) Federal law requires employers to hold jobs open for employees called to active duty. But First Sergeant Dan Pinsoneault worries that business owners may hesitate to hire people who could leave them short-handed.
Pinsonault’s Rutland-based Reserve unit returned this spring from a six-month tour in Kuwait that stretched into more than a year. Pinsonault’s been in the Reserve 28 years, and he’s never seen anything like this before.
(Pinsonault) “Part-time soldiers that were, you know, they were called part-time in the past. They’re looking at a whole different menu now, as far as what’s going to be expected of them. And this was kind of a wake-up call, this past 12 months.”
(Keese) Pinsonault says he’s planning to remain in the Reserves. To him, it’s like a family. But he says he wouldn’t fault his soldiers if they didn’t re-enlist.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.
(Host) Thursday in our series on the war: a visit to opposing demonstrations in Rutland.