(Host) We continue this week’s look back at 2006 with a report on the War in Iraq.
During the past year, the intensity of Vermont’s connection to the war in Iraq diminished as more National Guardsmen came home.
But as VPR’s Steve Delaney reports in our Year-in-Review series, the casualties continued.
(Delaney) At the beginning of 2006 a thousand Vermonters were serving in Iraq, mostly in the deadly Sunni Triangle west of Baghdad. They were members of Task Force Saber, patrolling in the Ramadi area of Iraq’s deadly Anbar Province.
VPR’s Lynne McCrea began the roll call of the fallen in January.
(McCrea) 24-year old Sergeant Joshua Johnson was a team leader with Alpha Company 3 of the172nd Infantry Battalion.
(Delaney) Adjutant General Martha Rainville said his Humvee was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.
(Rainville) “Sergeant Johnson was sitting in the right front seat. The RPG hit directly on the windshield in front of him, causing head and neck wounds that eventually proved fatal.”
(Delaney) Johnson was born in St. Albans and grew up in Richford. He was the twentieth Vermonter to die in combat in Iraq. General Rainville spoke to the families of other members of Task Force Saber.
(Rainville) “We will get thru this and we will get this task force home.
(Delaney) But not all of them. Early in March, General Rainville spoke again.
(Rainville) “This morning I’m announcing the loss of a Green Mountain Boy, Specialist Christopher Merchant. He is survived by his wife, Monica, who lives in Hardwick, and by four children, ages 9, 10, 11 and 13, and by his parents.”
(Delaney) Merchant’s Humvee was also struck by a rocket propelled grenade near Ramadi.
In March Governor Jim Douglas made a surprise, secret visit to Iraq, with several other Governors, to see for himself how the Vermonters deployed there were doing. VPR’s Bob Kinzel reported the trip.
(Kinzel) Douglas left Vermont on Sunday. He arrived in Kuwait on Monday and spent the night at a U.S. military base.
On Tuesday, he flew to Baghdad and then boarded a helicopter for Ramadi where the 172nd Armor Battalion of the Vermont National Guard is stationed. Douglas spoke about his trip with several reporters by satellite phone.
(Douglas) “I’ve talked with some of my colleagues who have visited Iraq and I felt that I wanted to go as well to see these men and women doing their jobs in the theater of operations where we send them and to reassure them that they have the undivided support of a grateful state.”
(Delaney) But while the Governor was away, anti-war sentiment, was building in Vermont. Joseph Gainza of the American Friends Service Committee talked about organizing a gentle protest in Rutland.
(Gainza) “It’s not a regular rally and demonstration, it’s a vigil. People usually like to come and hear fiery speakers, but this is not going to be that. Our message is going to be a quiet one, a peaceful one: we need to bring our troops now and take care of them when they get here.”
(Delaney) Gainza made it clear that his efforts were directed against the people who were directing the war, not the Vermonters who were fighting it.
In April, another Vermonter died in Afghanistan. VPR’s Patti Daniels reported that.
(Daniels) “A nighttime firefight killed Master Sergeant Thomas Stone of Pomfret and a Canadian soldier last week.”
(Delaney) By then, Martha Rainville had resigned to run for Congress, and Michael Dubie was Vermont’s Adjutant General.
(Dubie) “After reviewing initial reports of enemy contact, the commander of Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan determined that an investigation was warranted.”
(Delaney) That investigation lasted for months, and revealed that Sergeant Stone was killed by friendly fire. In October, his partner Rose Loving of Tunbridge still didn’t have all the details she wanted.
(Loving) “The army is responsible to the families to tell them what happened officially. It’s like I want to follow everything until I can just sit quiet.”
(Delaney) In talking to Stone’s friends, VPR’s Steve Zind discovered the extraordinary personality of a fifty two year old man who didn’t stay put for very long.
(Friends) “He would appear unannounced, uninvited.”
“All hours of the day and night.”
“Exactly. Just when you needed him the most.”
“Prepared to stay for five minutes if he sensed that you didn’t want him around or five months if he thought you did.”
(Zind) In 1992 Stone stepped from his doorway and didn’t return until he’d walked around the world. It took him eight years to make the twenty two thousand mile trek.
Stone would have finished his last deployment this summer. For the first time in his life, he seemed ready to settle down.
Rose Loving says last spring, Stone bought a young apple tree and planted it behind their Tunbridge home.
(Loving) “This tree doesn’t even bear fruit for eight years. That was kind of his way of saying, ‘This is my home’.”
(Zind) The little house where the apple tree stands is perched high on a Vermont hilltop.
There’s a view of distant, hazy mountains.
Beyond them is the world Tom Stone also called his home.
(Delaney) There would be other funerals later in the year. Marine Lance Corporal Kurt Dechen of Springfield, and Army Sergeant Carlton Clark of Sharon, both killed in August.
(Sounds of a welcome celebration)
(Delaney) In June, Vermonters began coming home in large numbers, among them Sergeant Craig Levesque.
(Levesque) “I’m gonna go home and sleep in my own bed, wake up in the morning and probably make a big breakfast and after that? Just relax. No more. I mean, I’m gonna take a while off and then just do what I need to do.”
(Delaney) Most of the returnees from Task Force Saber came back by way of Camp Shelby Mississippi, for a few days of processing and decompression. VPR’s Steve Zind was there when they arrived.
(Soldier) “It feels really good to be back here, that’s for sure. The greeting when we came off the plane was great, everybody shaking our hands, saying congratulations, welcome home’ – it was a really nice feeling.”
(Zind) More Vermont guard members will arrive in Mississippi later today and on Tuesday. Guard officials say they hope to have all the troops back in Vermont by Father’s Day on Sunday.
(Delaney) Late in the year, small numbers of Vermonters were sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, but in supportive roles. And on balance, the abiding image of Vermonters in uniform in 2006, was one of homecoming.
Commentator David Moats caught the essence of that, in witnessing the airport arrival of a soldier just back from eight months in harm’s way. Here’s part of his reflection on that journey’s end.
(Moats) “The soldier was in his fatigues, hoisting a bulky backpack. He has buzz-cut blond hair, and he was standing in the aisle, waiting to get off at the airport.”
“I followed the soldier out the skyway, and as he neared the exit I saw him reach into the pocket of his left thigh and remove a small white teddy bear. I thought, he’ll be disappointed if he’s expecting someone there on the concourse.”
“But as soon as he stepped into the airport, a tiny blond girl, with her hair in pigtails and arms spread wide, came racing toward the soldier. She couldn’t have been more than two years old. Running was new to her. Running toward the man who was her father was probably something she had never done.”
“The soldier squatted down and swept her up in his arms. About ten feet away the mother was also squatted down, watching this scene, hands covering her face, tears in her eyes.”
“I didn’t wait around to watch the reunion between the soldier and his wife.”
“People just trying to get through something hard and then to get on with their lives, all of it made worthwhile by the headlong dash of that little girl into her father’s arms.”
(Delaney) With fewer Vermonters now doing less deadly missions in Iraq, it may be that the next time we look back at a year’s events, we won’t need a separate section on war.
For VPR News, I’m Steve Delaney.