SOUTH BURLINGTON - If terrorists were to attack South Burlington, would neighbors bat an eye?
Apparently not. For 18 hours last weekend, the Vermont Air National Guard conducted military exercises at its South Burlington headquarters, which abuts the Burlington International Airport. The semi-covert ops were conducted as part of a simulated terrorist attack.
According to Captain Kate Irish, a Guard spokesperson at Camp Johnson in Colchester, last weekend's exercises were nothing special, but she wouldn't say what the exercises consisted of or how often they're conducted. Irish, who said the recent ops were "routine training" procedures, did confirm that F-16 planes were flown.
A few days before the operations took place, Guard reps sent a press release to local media outlets warning of explosions. Irish said the release was issued as a public courtesy, rather than an explanation of the operations. "Really, the only reason the advisories ever go out beforehand is just to let folks know, because the noise is audible," she noted by telephone Monday morning.
On Sunday night at the Burlington airport, two Burlington Police Department officers declined to comment on the exercises, deferring to Deputy Chief Mike Schirling. Reached in his office Monday morning, the BPD spokesman said of the phony barrage, "Whatever it was, it was unrelated to us."
"They just do a simulated attack on the airport, like a terrorist attack, and how they would handle it," said Airport Ambassador Mike Magmuson on Sunday evening, standing outside the airport with two neon-jump-suited colleagues.
Did the ambassador see planes flying around, at least? "Yeah, the F-16s do take off," reflected Magmuson. "It looked like a big C-47 [transport plane] took off and flew overhead. I think they had the Black Hawk [helicopters] out there, too."
Dixie Lemay has lived at the intersection of Airport Road and Maryland Street - in full view of the Air National Guard base - since 1971. Speaking with a reporter in her kitchen around 8:30 p.m., Lemay had no complaints about the weekend exercises. "As far as I'm concerned, they did a good job; it's just another one of their exercises," said Lemay, a former administrative assistant at Camp Johnson who supports the Iraq war.
"The commercial airlines make a hell of a lot more noise," she continued. "You can almost tell which airline it is. You can hear them through the walls." Lemay suggested that criticism of the Iraq war should be directed principally at Congress, which funds the war, rather than at President George W. Bush.
In recent weeks, all three members of Vermont's congressional delegation approved the 2008 Defense Authorization Act. The act appropriates new funds for the Iraq war, which will have cost American taxpayers approximately $617 billion by 2009, according to the National Priorities Project.
The Vermont National Guard's operating budget for fiscal year '06 was $156 million - approximately the same amount the state will spend in 2007 on transportation-infrastructure improvements. None of the Vermont Guard's 3500 members have been active overseas this fall, but 11 Vermont Army guardsmen have been killed in the Middle East since 2001.
On nearby Ledoux Terrace, a car with a "Support our troops: Bring them home now!" sticker was parked in a residential driveway. Responding to a knock on his door, the assumed owner of the vehicle declined to comment for this story.
At a home across the street, blue light was emanating from an enormous flat-screen television. The resident, a young man with a shaved head, happened to be a National Guardsman. Irritated, the soldier deferred to the Guard's Camp Johnson public-affairs office. Could he at least provide his name? "I can't even tell you my name," he said.
Just before 9 p.m., a reporter visited the closest business establishment on nearby Williston Road that was still open - Hooters - to inquire about the military exercises. Had any Hooters patrons recently overheard fake terrorist activity at the Burlington airport?
Decidedly not, asserted a server named "Jae" over what sounded like a song by the Eurythmics. "I mean, the airport is close," she pointed out, "but it's not really close enough to hear."
Jae subsequently added, "It's really loud in here." Seven Days was unable to verify whether the sound of war machines can be distinguished from an onslaught of '80s pop classics.