Saturday, March 3
MONTPELIER — Three weeks after adopting a resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, a committee of the Vermont Senate took testimony from people with particularly personal stakes in it.

The hearing Friday, which drew more than 100 people to the Statehouse despite a snowstorm, was originally organized to hear from prominent anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan on an already-passed resolution calling for the U.S.' withdrawal from Iraq.

But it was the personal stories that riveted the lawmakers and audience members.

"We can win this war. We've just got to let the military do what it needs to do," said Matt Bedia of the town of Washington.

Bedia, who retired after 20 years in the Vermont National Guard, placed a Purple Heart medal on the table before him and prefaced his testimony by listing terrorist attacks of the past decade and a half. Bedia was awarded the Purple Heart after he was injured in Iraq when a comrade was killed. He said resolutions opposing the war were bad for morale.

"This nonsense has got to stop because these resolutions do hurt. They demoralize troops," said Bedia, who kneeled in tears at the back of the House chamber after testifying.

Other Iraq war veterans were equally heartfelt.

Matt Howard, 25, of Burlington, who served two tours in Iraq with the Marines, said he came home disillusioned and angry about how the United States was treating Iraqis. He criticized war opponents for suggesting it was unpatriotic to speak out against the war.

"I'm sick and tired of this vocal minority trampling on our voice," said Howard, who said he was reflecting the views of his comrades.

Drew Cameron, 24, of Burlington, who served four years in the Army, including tours in Iraq, said he, too, felt deceived.

"The reason I was told I was going over there were false," Cameron said. "It is not easy to come home from war and realize you were callously sent over there."

Sheehan, who rose to national prominence after camping outside President Bush's Texas ranch after the death of her son, Casey, endorsed the Vermont Legislature's resolution.

Indignant testimony

But her appearance drew indignant testimony from other women whose sons died in the war.

"Ms. Sheehan, you're a disgrace to your son's memory," said Marion Gray, of East Calais, whose stepson Jamie died while serving in Iraq with the National Guard.

Vicki Strong of Albany, who like Sheehan lost a son in the war, followed Sheehan to the witness table and heartily endorsed the war despite her own loss.

Sheehan, the first to testify, sat at the back of the chamber and listened to the rest of the testimony.

She said had great respect for the troops serving overseas, but she said it was time the public understood the difficult conditions in which they are serving.

"I think that's important that we say we separate our government's foreign policy from the action of the troops," Sheehan said. "They're being asked to do dishonorable duty."

But Strong painted a much different picture of her own views about Iraq, views that she said her son Jesse shared before dying in Iraq two years ago as he helped Iraq prepare for elections.

"Despite my loss, which is so profound and sad, I am so proud of our military," Strong said. "I'm proud (Jesse) stood up and defended our country against terrorism and for the Iraqi people."

Sheehan's brief testimony was met with silence.

Strong, who read a lengthy letter from in Iraqi woman who wrote to her, was greeted with a standing ovation from about half of the crowd. As the hearing progressed, audience members applauded speakers supporting their view or remained silent.

An opportunity to speak

The hearing before the Senate Economic Development Committee came three weeks after both the House and Senate adopted non-binding resolutions calling for the immediate withdrawal of troops. The resolution initially was referred to that panel, which did not have time to take testimony before the Senate's scheduled vote.

Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, R-Essex-Orleans, said he wanted to give both sides an opportunity to express their views even though it would not affect public policy. "A number of people contacted us and said we'd like to testify for or against the resolution and we said we'd provide an opportunity in the future for such a forum," Illuzzi said.


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