Counter-protest gets personal

Military families voice support for troops

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

For Dannielle Thomas, Friday’s pro-military demonstration in Williston was personal.

The Fairfax resident organized the rally at the Armed Forces Career Center in Maple Tree Place. About a dozen flag-waving and sign-carrying participants stood in a bitter-cold breeze for three hours to show their support for military recruiters and troops in Iraq.

The rally was a response to an anti-recruiting, anti-war protest organized by Mount Mansfield Union High School students the previous Friday. Though Thomas said she supports their free speech rights, she felt hurt by some of the rhetoric, especially one sign that read “recruiters lie, kids die.”

After all, her husband, Staff Sgt. Philip Thomas, is a military recruiter in Williston who has served in Iraq. And her younger sister, Caroline Yarmala, is currently stationed in Iraq as a member of the U.S Navy.

“I thought it was misguided,” Dannielle Thomas said of the previous protest. “I don’t think they meant to be disrespectful. They just got too fired up before it started, and they got riled up by outside groups.”

Her mother-in-law, Diana Thomas, also attended Friday’s rally.

“We just want to let our troops know that we love and support them,” she said. “We’re here to back them up on everything they do for us.”

The low-key event presented a stark contrast to the previous week’s protest. About 75 demonstrators marched to the Armed Forces Career Center before moving on to the National Guard recruiting office, also located in Maple Tree Place. Protesters waved signs and chanted through bullhorns, then staged a sit-in at the Guard office. Thirteen were arrested on trespassing charges after they refused to leave.

On Friday, demonstrators quietly gathered on the sidewalk. They even moved to an adjacent location when a gaggle of media members covering the event began to impede traffic.

The rally was so orderly that police said it should serve as a template for other demonstrations.

“Today’s group was a model for future protests on how to express an opinion or belief without violating laws or the rights of others who disagree with your opinion,” wrote Williston Police Sgt. Bart Chamberlain in a media release.

A family affair

Those present at last week’s rally were either veterans or had family members in the military. Two women who brought young children with them, Brandy Borja of Grand Isle and Jennifer Rea of Milton, are also married to military recruiters.

St. Johnsbury resident Chandler Clifford, who spent a combined 20 years in the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines and National Guard, said he wanted to counter the previous week’s demonstration, adding that though protests by high school students may be “cute,” he felt they were too young to fully understand the military.

Island Pond resident Jon Piper, another veteran whose father, stepfather and grandfather all served in the military, was also there to demonstrate his support for the troops. He worried that soldiers in Iraq might read news of anti-war protests on the Internet and conclude they have little support back home.

Turnout at the previous protest in Williston was boosted after several anti-war groups got involved. One organization assisted with the pro-military rally.

The group, Gathering of Eagles, stages counter-protests throughout the country, said Kathy Upton, the organization’s Vermont coordinator. She said Dannielle Thomas contacted her and asked for help.

“We’re just trying to get the other side of the story out,” Upton said. “Too often the anti-war side gets all the attention.”

Thomas said she originally planned to hold the rally at the same time as the other protest. But she was talked out of it by her husband, who felt it would give the anti-war demonstrators more publicity and create conflict.

Shortly before last week’s rally ended, about 20 students from Essex Technical Center arrived, temporarily boosting attendance. Though grateful for the support, Thomas acknowledged that she was disappointed more people didn’t show up. She noted it was held on Pearl Harbor Day and some veterans’ organizations had other events scheduled.

If any of the student protesters were her children, Thomas said she would tell them to learn more about the military and not just go along with their peers.

“Be more educated about the things that fire you up,” she said. “Do your own research and find your own ground.”