April 19, 2014

War memorial draws volunteers, criticism

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Veteran’s spouse calls display ‘thinly veiled protest’

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

When is lending a hand perceived as a political act? Jim McCullough may have discovered the answer.

McCullough, one of two Democrats representing Williston in the Vermont House, offered to help maintain a display showing how many U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq. Located at the North Williston Road home of Pat Brown and Amy Huntington, it comprises about 3,500 yellow utility markers, one for each soldier who has died.

The enigmatic display – passing motorists regularly stop to ask what the markers signify – became a high-maintenance endeavor once spring arrived.

The markers are inserted in a grass-covered field and have to be moved for mowing. Brown said it takes hours to uproot and then replace them.

McCullough figured the couple could use some help. He offered to pitch in himself and wrote a letter to the editor published in last week’s Observer asking for volunteers.

About a half-dozen people had volunteered by Monday. But McCullough’s letter also brought a different type of response from the wife of a U.S. Air Force member who has been deployed in support of the war effort.

“When I read Rep. McCullough’s plea for help I wondered where he was the last time my husband went off to war and the lawn mower broke, or the time he went off and the sump broke and my basement flooded, or the time that my child was sick at school and I had no way of picking him up,” wrote Williston resident Meegan Delphia in a letter to the editor this week.

She said in an interview that her husband, Michael, has served in the Air Force for 32 years. She was hesitant to provide details beyond saying he has been deployed overseas in support of the war effort and expects him to return in the future.

But Delphia didn’t hesitate to express her opinion of McCullough’s volunteer drive and the display itself, which she passes occasionally during travels around town. She wrote in her letter that it is “a thinly veiled protest against the war for our freedom from terrorism.”

The markers do not honor the troops but instead “memorialize death,” Delphia said in an interview. When her children, ages 10 and 12, see the display, she said it reminds them that their dad could die in the line of duty.

Brown said the display was not intended as an anti-war statement. He said media coverage of the war has been superficial and so he felt compelled to point out the war’s effect.

“I just wanted people to think, I wanted people to remember,” he said.

Brown would not say how he feels about the war. He said publicly stating his views would just be divisive.

The markers represent only one facet of the war’s cost, Brown said, because they don’t show the numbers injured both physically and psychologically nor the effect on families of service members and the country as a whole.

“It’s far deeper than just the people who have died,” Brown said.

Delphia was sharply critical of McCullough’s involvement with the display. She said his time would be better spent using his position as a state legislator to get help for service members’ families.

McCullough said he has in fact tried to support the troops and their families. For example, he said he signed a resolution asking for a study of the needs of Vermont National Guard families.

“My heart goes out to her, her spouse and her children,” he said. “I don’t fault her a bit for her anger.”

McCullough said he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, and he knew that helping maintain his neighbors’ display could be viewed through a political prism.

“But I thought it was worth doing anyway,” he said. “I have a responsibility as a town leader to lead people. Any leader who thinks everything he does will be popular is living in a fairy tale book.”

Brown said he has not directly received any negative comments about the display, but many people have stopped to ask about its significance.

The markers were put up last November. Brown said at the time he did not consider they would have to be moved to mow.

“I was kind of hoping I wouldn’t have to put them out in the summer,” he said. “I was kind of hoping we’d be all done (in Iraq) and everyone would be home.”

As of last week, Brown said 3,434 markers had been placed in his field. That number will grow. CNN reported Tuesday that 3,510 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq and at least 25,950 have been wounded in action.

Putting the markers up and taking them down for mowing is nearly a four-hour job, but Brown said the inconvenience pales in comparison to what military families go through.

“Every time I put another flag in the ground I think of a family that has been impacted,” he said. “So it’s not as much work as you might think.”

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