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Senate hears from Cindy Sheehan, others

MONTPELIER, Vt. --Anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan on Friday endorsed the Vermont Legislature's call for withdrawing American troops from Iraq, saying they are being asked to perform "dishonorable duty."

In a legislative hearing that drew more than 100 people to the Statehouse in a snowstorm, Sheehan gave one view while Vicki Strong, of Albany, who also lost a son in the war, heartily endorsed the war, despite her own loss.

Sheehan, 49, of Vacaville, Calif., has emerged as one of the war's most vocal opponents since camping out near President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas in 2005.

Sheehan, who lost her son, Casey, in Iraq in 2004, said she had great respect for the troops serving overseas, but that 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."

Following her at the witness table, Strong painted a much different picture about her own views, which 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 an 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.

Midway through the hearing, a man was removed from the Statehouse by a beefed-up security force after speaking from the back of the chamber.

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.

So committee Chairman 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.

The size of the turnout reflected Vermont's intense interest -- in the resolution and the war.

Despite a snowstorm that dumped about 7 inches of snow on the Capitol and largely shut down the Legislature, war opponents and supporters -- some wearing American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars caps -- made it to the hearing.

Iraq war veterans also appeared before the committee. Like the mothers, they were divided in their views of the conflict.

Matt Howard, 25, of Burlington, who served two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Marines Corps, 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 reasons 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."

Linda Perham of Westminster, a past national vice commander of the American Legion, said the United States had made the world safer by going to war in Iraq. Resolutions or protests against the war only serve to unite terrorists, she said.

"Terrorists and some Americans want us to believe Iraq is engaged in a helpless civil war," she said. "This is not a civil war but a struggle for freedom."

Matt Bedia of the town of Washington, 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 15 years. 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.

"We can win this war. We've just got to let the military do what it needs to do," Bedia said. "This nonsense has got to stop because these resolutions do hurt. They demoralize troops."