BURLINGTON -- The sole mission of the Vermont Air National Guard should be to protect and defend continental U.S. airspace, not drop bombs in foreign wars of aggression, a local antiwar group says. Now Burlington voters will decide whether the city should force the U.S. government to end VTANG's deployment overseas.
A nonpartisan citizens' group called "Take Back the Air Guard" gathered enough signatures over the last three months to put the measure on the ballot in time for Town Meeting Day on March 7. The group submitted more than 1700 signatures -- well above the required 5 percent of registered voters, or about 1250 names, needed for a ballot initiative.
The measure reads: "Shall the City Council be advised to use all lawful means to keep the men and women of the Vermont Air National Guard at home to provide air defense for the state and nation, and to prevent their overseas deployment to drop bombs in wars of aggression against other nations?"
If approved, the nonbinding referendum would recommend that the city terminate the U.S. government's lease on 223 acres at Burlington International Airport unless the 158th Fighter Wing agrees to only engage in air-defense duties. An effort last fall to convince the City Council to adopt a similar resolution failed when the group couldn't find a councilor to sponsor it.
Hal Cochran, a retired lawyer and teacher living in Burlington and a lead Take Back the Air Guard organizer, asserts that since 1998, the Pentagon has quietly transformed VTANG from a defensive wing into a bomber squadron that engages in combat missions. He sees the ballot question as an opportunity for Burlington voters to end the city's complicity in the Iraq War.
"Like any other piece of city property, [the airport] should be used as the citizens of Burlington want it to be used," Cochran said at a press conference Monday in City Hall. "This is just the same as, 'Should we give the Moran Plant to the YMCA?'"
Cochran was joined by 10 supporters, among them Sister Miriam Ward, a longtime Burlington peace activist. Ward said she's deeply concerned that Vermont could one day find itself in a crisis similar to the Gulf states after Hurricane Katrina, when National Guard personnel and equipment weren't available because they were in Iraq. "I am not against the Guard," Ward insisted. "I'm against the whole militarization of our society."
But Brigadier General Bill Etter, VTANG's assistant adjutant general, said that many of the assertions made by Take Back the Air Guard are ill-informed and false. The Air Guard has historically had a dual state and federal mission, Etter said, and it's unrealistic to believe the U.S. government would permit Vermont-based aircrafts to be used solely for domestic missions. He added that it's unlikely Vermont F-16s would ever be called upon to assist in a natural disaster.
While the Air Guard's current role in the global war on terrorism is somewhat different from past missions, Etter said it's not unprecedented. In 2000, Vermont-based pilots were sent to Iraq to enforce the southern no-fly zone. In the early 1990s, VTANG pilots and planes flew drug-interdiction missions in Central America.
Etter compared VTANG's current duties in Iraq to "a policeman on the beat," in which VTANG pilots fly close air support for the Vermont Army National Guard and other U.S. military troops on the ground. Within the next four months, more than 350 VTANG personnel will be stationed overseas.
Etter predicted that if Burlington voters were to restrict VTANG's federal mission, the base would quickly be closed and its personnel and equipment reassigned. He claimed the city would lose about $35 million in annual payroll to Air Guard employees, as well as airport firefighting capability to the tune of $1.6 million a year.
But Cochran rejected the suggestion that Vermont's Air Guard base could be moved elsewhere or closed. He pointed out that recent court decisions have upheld state sovereignty over their own guard units, and that only the Base Alignment and Closure Commission has the authority to shutter a military base.
In a joint statement issued Monday, Vermont's congressional delegation expressed its support for VTANG and said it's in the best interest of Burlington residents and travelers to keep the Air Guard at the airport. "Though we opposed the war in Iraq and believe that this Administration has misled the country's foreign policy, we are steadfast in our support and appreciation for the sacrifices and the skill of the men and women of the Vermont National Guard," reads the statement signed by Senators Patrick Leahy and Jim Jeffords and Rep. Bernie Sanders.
Doug Dunbebin, a former city councilor, said at Monday's press conference that one of his proudest moments as a public servant was when Burlington adopted a resolution opposing the invasion of Iraq. But Dunbebin is disappointed that officials appear unwilling to put their money where their mouth is.
"It's easy for us to pass resolutions and march in parades and protests," Dunbebin said. "But sometimes when it gets personally and financially painful, that's when you find out how much you really dislike this war."
To demonstrate the futility of empty gestures, Dunbebin smashed an egg on his forehead. "This is the face of Burlington," he said.