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The Weekend Warriors' War

The second smallest state in population is rich in sweet syrup, cozy inns, and expensive ski slopes. But in the shadows of the Green Mountains, Vermont's rural poverty is encouraging young people to seek out a better life through the National Guard - and now disproportionate numbers of them are coming home in flag-draped caskets.

Chris Chapin's boots
National Guardsman Chris Chapin gave his life in Iraq, his dusty boots a testament to his service in the desert city of Ramadi. (Globe Staff Photo / Michele McDonald)

THE POPULAR IMAGE OF VERMONT is of a four-season outdoor paradise, a place that draws the restless, the retirees, and the rich, who drive over romantic covered bridges into lush mountain valleys and drizzle fresh maple syrup over their buttermilk pancakes at a cozy B&B. But the people who have always lived here know a less idyllic Vermont, where the expensive ski slopes and stereotypical inns mask a privation that makes joining the National Guard an act of economic self-preservation for many of the state's young people.

It's an attractive way to make money, get an education, hang out with your buddies for years after high school, and enjoy the outdoors on weekends. And despite their libertarian idiosyncrasies, Vermonters have long maintained a visceral tie to the military that can be traced to the Revolutionary War legacy of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys. Later, in the War of 1812, the vulnerable border with Canada was guarded by state militia. In the Civil War, Vermont lost more men per capita than all but one Northern state and even was raided by Confederate cavalry. And in 1941, Vermont declared war on Nazi Germany - three months before the federal government got around to it.

Last month, I drove past the Trapp Family Lodge and the Stowe ski resort, past quaint country inns and majestic Mount Mansfield, to job-poor Lamoille County, where the bloody war in Iraq has beaten a winding path. Here, at Peoples Academy in Morrisville, in a school gymnasium where hundreds sit on worn wooden bleachers and creaking metal chairs, another Vermont community has gathered to mourn another soldier killed in that faraway conflict.

The sorrowful on this day wear plaid shirts and oversize rubber boots, crisp military uniforms and honor-guard gloves, ill-fitting ties and creased white shirts just out of their boxes. And one, the devastated teenage son of the dead soldier, wears an altar boy's robe on a makeshift stage where a funeral Mass is said below the two-century-old flag of the Green Mountain Boys of Vermont.

The widow of Specialist Christopher Merchant, a National Guardsman killed on March 1 by a rocket-propelled grenade, eulogizes her husband as "a hero, an honorable man, a soldier." The widow's eyes are hidden by sunglasses; her body shakes. And then Monica Merchant's composure shatters like the Humvee that had been carrying her spouse outside Ramadi, her words overwhelmed by a high-pitched wail. Escorted sobbing from the stage, led to her seat by the gray metal casket, the mother of four clutches a folded American flag to her breast, clasps one of her small daughters with the other arm, and rocks back and forth throughout the Mass in a slow, inconsolable rhythm.

Governor James Douglas pauses at Merchant's chair, offering his condolences before summoning a semblance of optimism in words that seem more wishful than certain. The Vermonters who have perished in Iraq, the governor tells the mourners, will "not have died in vain."

This day, the doubters are silent. Instead, the prevailing emotion is a quiet pride in a popular 32-year-old, a school custodian who rejoined the Army National Guard because, his wife says, he didn't want to stay behind while his friends did the fighting. Country and neighbors called, and Christopher Merchant answered. Simple as that. And simply understood here.

Merchant's decision to go to war did not surprise Lamoille County. Instead, the surprise for Lamoille County and other rural areas of Vermont is that anyone expected otherwise. But over and over, from Rutland to Richford and points in between, this innate pride in Vermont's troops is countered by deep misgivings about the Pentagon's heavy reliance on the "weekend warriors" of the National Guard. For most Vermonters, who have no active-duty bases in the state, the National Guard is their only connection to the military. And although the Guard's soldiers and airmen have long known the risk, few could have imagined the caldron of combat in which they now find themselves.

"The National Guard is a natural," says Garrison Nelson, a political science professor at the University of Vermont. "These are country kids, and they've been around rifles all their lives. Most of them knew how to shoot long before they got into the National Guard. And, for them, it's a chance to make a few extra bucks."

AFTER THE FUNERAL, in the cafeteria of the school where Merchant worked until his deployment, the governor walks nearly unnoticed among the soldier's murmuring friends and relatives, just another familiar presence picking at a plate of pasta. In this small town among small towns, Douglas chats easily with Roland Lajoie, a local radio host who used the airwaves of a country-music station to tell the community of Merchant's death. The Republican governor has called for an "exit strategy" for the war. But on this day, as Merchant's brother squeezes hands and shoulders just feet away, Douglas refuses to be drawn into a debate on the merits of the conflict. "It's not a question of support at this point," Douglas says. "We're doing our duty and praying that this casualty will be our last." But that's unlikely, given the grim confluence of patriotism and danger for the Vermont National Guard.

Numbers help tell the story: The country's second-smallest state in population has the country's second-highest National Guard enlistment, proportionate to population - 5.7 per 1,000 residents. That participation rate is almost four times the national average, almost three times that of New Hampshire, almost five times that of Massachusetts.

Nine hundred of Vermont's National Guard soldiers and airmen are overseas, with nearly half of them stationed in Ramadi, a Sunni Triangle city that is one of the most dangerous places in all of Iraq. It is therefore almost an inevitable result that, per capita, Vermont leads the United States in fatalities for both the National Guard and for all military branches combined. Sixteen Vermonters had died in Iraq as of the end of March, nine of them guardsmen. In Afghanistan, the first Vermonter to be killed in that conflict died March 29.

At first, Vermont's disproportionate share of battlefield tragedy seems incongruous. It is one of a cohort of small-population states that rank among the highest in National Guard participation and fatality rates; the others are North Dakota, South Dakota, Alaska. But those are red states, and Vermont is arguably the bluest of the blue states. In exit polls during the 2004 presidential election, more Vermont voters identified themselves as "liberals" than as Democrats. This year, several Vermont communities voted at Town Meeting for the impeachment of President Bush. The state's only member of the US House of Representatives, Bernie Sanders, is a socialist. And Howard Dean, mocked by Republicans as a far-left caricature when he ran for president in 2004, was a popular governor before his self-immolating scream in the Iowa caucuses.

But check the homes of Vermont's war dead, and the names of small towns in this state of only 623,000 people are the norm - places like Hardwick, Richford, Proctor, and Starksboro. Only two deaths have been recorded in Burlington, the state's largest city, and its suburbs in Chittenden County.

RICHFORD IS A RIVER VILLAGE of 2,300 people on the Canadian border whose best days are behind it, a place where anyone who doesn't have a job at Blue Seal Feeds might not have a job. "We didn't have any money up here," says Richard Mercy, 65, who is commander of the American Legion post. "My father said to me: 'Get the hell out of Richford.'"

So Mercy joined the Navy out of high school and, by chance,served on the USS Ethan Allen, a submarine that patrolled the deep ocean during the height of the Cold War. After a 20-year career, Mercy eventually made his way back to Richford and the company of other far-north Vermonters who don't wear their patriotism on their sleeves but who do hold it fast in their hearts. When the American Legion post held its annual "birthday" gathering recently, after a quiet ham dinner that included local soldiers, sailors, and Marines from all the country's major conflicts since World War II, veteran after veteran spoke about a generations-long link to the military.

One of them, Jeffery Pynduss, 21, a deeply tanned Marine lance corporal, has just returned on leave from Iraq, where he is serving as a machine-gunner. Beside him sits his father, Mark, who spent 20 years in the Navy and served in the Gulf War; Mark's father was a veteran of Vietnam. And beside Mark sits another son, Jon, a freshman at Maine Maritime Academy who hopes to become a Marine pilot. "I've known since I was young that I wanted to be in the military," Jeffery says while standing nearly at attention as he discussed his decision to enlist out of Richford's high school. "This is a small, close town, and we're willing to fight for what we believe in."

Jeff Marcoux, who recently returned from a year in Iraq, recalls how he joined the National Guard in 1990 after serving in the Navy from 1975 to 1979. "I was on my way to work, and a staff sergeant stopped me and asked me whether I'd sign up," says Marcoux, 49. "About two minutes later, I was signed up." That National Guard sergeant was a friend, says Marcoux, a father of five who emigrated from Canada when he was 9 years old and still speaks with a slight French accent.

When I ask him whether he supports the war, Marcoux says: "The United States has been at it since the Revolution. That's what we do, I guess. "After pausing for several seconds, he adds, "I never thought about it."

Joshua Allen Johnson was also from Richford. He joined the Army in 2001, two years after he graduated from high school; he never told the grandparents who raised him exactly why. Now he is dead, the clear-eyed, square-jawed, good-looking 24-year-old farm boy whose head was blown apart January 25 by a rocket-propelled grenade near Ramadi. Before he joined the Army and traveled to dusty lands halfway around the globe, Joshua Johnson had never traveled farther than Burlington.

He first served in Afghanistan, helicoptered into the mountains in search of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in Operation Anaconda in 2002. Then, in 2003, after his discharge, he joined the National Guard. Johnson relished the physical demands of the 172d Mountain Battalion, based at Jericho, Vermont, and the chance to be around his friends. And for one weekend of National Guard training a month, and two weeks during the year, Johnson could supplement the wages he earned at Century International Arms in Fairfax, where he did everything from cleaning guns to unloading trucks.

"He needed the challenge," says his mother, Laura Royea. "And he liked the paycheck."

In Vermont, a new National Guard recruit at the lowest rank of private earns between $1,178 and $1,427 a year, plus tuition reimbursement of almost $6,000 and some health insurance and death benefits. And this year, until the end of May, a new recruit is eligible for an enlistment bonus of up to $20,000. In Johnson's hometown of Richford, where the median household income is $28,125 - almost $14,000 less than the national rate - the National Guard can look attractive.

To step into his boyhood home, where Johnson lived on 2 stingy acres off a long dirt road, is to leave any stereotypes of Vermont at the door, along with the mud. There are no Birkenstocks on the floor, no wistful remembrances of Howard Dean tacked to the tilting walls. Instead, the cramped confines of this patchwork household, where every beam and post seems to sag like the town's economy, carry dozens of reminders of Joshua, whom Harold and Phyllis Johnson, his maternal grandparents, raised since birth.

On this day, as the frozen ground begins to thaw, Harold Johnson, 67, begins to cry. "He didn't have a mean bone in his body," Johnson says, his eyes filling and his broad chest heaving. "I wish it hadn't had happened."

The couple has not changed a thing in their grandson's room, a tiny place cluttered with clothes and small, gleaming NASCAR models, where a sensitive, artistic boy grew into a strapping soldier. But his grandparents have accepted, with occasional flashes of bitterness, that Joshua will not be coming home. "This war ain't amounting to one thing, what they're doing with it. All he's doing is making things worse," Harold Johnson says of the president. "If he came up this road, he'd need a lot of guards, I'll tell you that."

On one wall are drawings created by Joshua as a schoolchild. On another are photos of him in his Army uniform, filled out with muscle and cradling a weapon across his chest. In another corner sits a 32-inch television, a flashy appliance that Joshua brought home as a surprise while his grandmother recuperated from a knee replacement.

A few days before military officials knocked on the door, the awful news of Joshua's death on their lips, Harold awoke in a start from a dead sleep. Sitting bolt upright, Phyllis recalls, he turned to her and said, "Josh isn't coming home." Soon afterward, a closed casket before him, Harold rejected the Army's advice and demanded to see his grandson.

"One side of his face was gone," Harold Johnson says.

UP AND DOWN THE STATE, more and more Vermonters are thinking about the war. Bernie Sanders, who is running for US Senate, voted against giving Bush the authority to go to war and wants the troops brought home as soon as possible. And even Martha Rainville, a Republican who recently stepped down as adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard, has said in her congressional campaign that Washington needs "to forge a plan to bring our troops home with honor and dignity."

That's not enough for Newfane Selectman Dan DeWalt, who made national news in February when he organized a signature drive that led to a 121-29 vote at Town Meeting to impeach George W. Bush. In DeWalt's assessment, the war is illegal, but he understands why young people who don't want to leave Vermont would join the National Guard. "There's not really a rich field of opportunity for young people here," says the 49-year-old DeWalt. So into the void steps the National Guard, with offers of money for college, promises of job skills, and the mantle of community respect. "It's sort of a con job," DeWalt says.

Paula Chapin refuses to go that far, but she can barely contain her anger that her husband, a National Guard master sergeant who worked with her at Rutland Regional Medical Center, lost his life on August 23 of last year, shot by a sniper while distributing voting instructions to Iraqi civilians. Once again, the location was Ramadi, and Chris Chapin, 39, a veteran of the Gulf War and Afghanistan, had left the relative safety of a headquarters job to try to make a difference on the streets.

"I never saw the sense in it. But he was a military guy, and I have to support my husband," Paula Chapin says, the walls of her warm, small house dotted with pictures of their wedding last June on a Georgia beach. "But he knew how I felt." The couple had lived together for 19 years before marrying.

For Paula, until Chris's death, the bond among members of the Vermont National Guard had only been something that soldiers discussed. Now she understands. "When I saw all the military come to his funeral, and how much they were loyal to each other, I guess I finally figured it out," she says.

Lieutenant Colonel Dan Pipes, who commands an infantry-training battalion for the Vermont National Guard, acknowledges that the burden on the state's citizen-soldiers has been immense. "I'm really obviously tired of going to funerals," says Pipes, who served with Chris in Afghanistan and asked to be assigned to support Paula Chapin during her husband's wake and funeral. "But having served with Vermonters in Afghanistan, I can't tell you how proud I am of being a small part of a team of ordinary men and women who come from all walks of life, put down their careers, put on their uniforms for a dramatic pay cut, and go over and do phenomenal things."

But Jeffery Pynduss, the Marine lance corporal who seems eager to return to Iraq, complains that the National Guard is ill-suited and ill-prepared for such a hazardous mission. "They're not properly trained, and they don't have the right military mentality," Pynduss says. "Most of them joined for the benefits, and a lot of them are getting hurt."

SUCH CONCERNS are shared by Lyle Hurtubise, 81, a sharpshooter who stormed Utah Beach on D-Day. Hurtubise and his three sons run a 2,600-acre dairy farm. Asked for his thoughts on the war, he replies: "I'd have to say like Senator John Kerry did: wrong place, wrong war, and wrong time."

Even Rainville, who is running to succeed Sanders in Congress, does not offer a wholehearted endorsement of the war's management. Success needs to be better defined, she says in an interview. "It seems there has been a real difficulty with what our objectives are with the Middle East, with Iraq, and I don't think many people have a well-rounded perspective because of poor communication on a lot of fronts," says Rainville, who served in the military for nearly 27 years.

Whatever their opinions on the war, Rainville says, Vermonters have not turned on one another as the fighting continues and the list of their dead grows. Says Phyllis Johnson: "We support our troops, but we just want them home." With each death, the shock and sorrow seems to tighten the ties that bind each affected community. And by extension, they bind a state so often dismissed as a quirky anomaly by the rest of the nation, but whose self-reliant identity is a palpable thing to the people here.

But after the 21-gun salutes are fired, after the flags are folded tight, the grief lingers long for the widows, children, parents, siblings, and grandparents of the dead. Others can debate the justification for such sacrifice, but the relatives of the slain almost always withdraw in hollow silence to lives that will never be the same. Unused rooms are left as memorials. Children adjust to a missing voice. A widow sits for hours by a freshly dug grave. And in Richford, an old man sees his grandson in every saddened corner of his poor country home.

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