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Vermont assumes heavy burden in Iraq war

The small New England state has suffered more deaths per capita in the Iraq war than any other state.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Vermont, a bastion of ex-hippies and Ben & Jerry liberals, has another distinction seemingly at odds with its peace-loving, tie-dyed politics: It has suffered more deaths per capita in the Iraq war than any other state.

Beginning with Chief Warrant Officer 4th Class Erik Halvorsen on April 2, 2003, a total of 22 Vermont men have perished in roadside bombings, firefights, sniper attacks and helicopter crashes during the six-year-long war.

"The losses we've had in Vermont have touched most of the state because we're so close-knit," said Maj. Gen. Michael Dubie, commander of the Vermont National Guard. "Almost everyone knows someone — or they know someone who knows someone — who's been affected by our losses."

The casualties give Vermont, pop. 621,000, a rate of 3.54 deaths per 100,000 people.

The high rate speaks more to Vermont's small size than it does to the actual number of deaths. With such a small population, it doesn't take a large number of deaths to produce a high per-capita rate. Vermont is followed on the list by Montana (2.87), Wyoming (2.57), Nebraska (2.50), and South Dakota (2.46).

In raw numbers, Vermont's losses pale in comparison to those of much bigger states — California has lost 469 members of the military in the war (1.27 deaths per 100,000 population), Texas 409 (1.65) and New York 186 (0.95).

Service in hot spots
The Pentagon does not provide state-by-state breakdowns of troops sent overseas, so it is unclear how many Vermonters are in the war zones. But less than 1 percent of the U.S. military is made up of people who list Vermont as their home state.

Another factor may be the Vermont GIs' assignments. Nearly half the 22 killed were members of the Vermont National Guard, a contingent of which served in Ramadi, a hotspot in 2005 and 2006. Six Vermont Guardsmen were killed there.

The Vermont National Guard is heavy with cavalry and infantry operations and has the U.S. military's only mountain infantry brigade, specializing in mountaineering and small-unit tactics.

"We have been assigned some very tough missions," Dubie said. "Unfortunately, we've paid the price."

Halvorsen paid it about two weeks after the "shock and awe" invasion of Baghdad. The 40-year-old career Army aviator was piloting a Black Hawk helicopter near the city of Karbala when it crashed, killing six. An Army investigation concluded the deaths were non-hostile, attributing the crash to pilot error.

"When Erik died, I just looked at that coffin, and whatever religion I had, I just lost it," said his mother, Dorothy Halvorsen, who was against the U.S. invasion of Iraq and told him so after he was sent there.

Now she salutes her fallen son by contributing to a local peace organizations and gathering with other anti-war activists in an annual vigil timed to mark the anniversary of the war's start.

The state has lost only one soldier in Afghanistan, ranking 45th in per-capita losses for that war.

Among the bluest states
Vermont is among the bluest of blue states. In an Associated Press exit poll last November, a third of respondents in Vermont described themselves as liberal, while only one in five did so nationally. The state's three members of the House and Senate are all war opponents, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, the only self-described socialist on Capitol Hill.

In 2007, the state Senate adopted a resolution calling for Congress to begin impeachment proceedings against President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Also that year, the towns of Brattleboro and Marlboro voted to seek indictments against Bush and Cheney over the war, and dozens of other towns voted at town meetings for impeachment.

A 1,500-strong Vermont National Guard contingent is now headed for a yearlong tour of duty in Afghanistan. At a departure ceremony last month, two mothers of Iraq war dead watched solemnly as 350 troops were sent off to war.

"We get concerned that our mere presence is a bit of a downer for the troops," said Marion Gray, whose stepson was killed in Iraq. "We're like the ghost that hovers in the background, and always worry about the soldiers looking at us, knowing that we lost a soldier, if that puts a damper on things."