The Spins of War
It was the lead story on WCAX-TV's evening news last Wednesday. Veteran crime reporter Brian Joyce had the exclusive -- an unsettling tale of members of the Vermont National Guard being harassed, abused and assaulted by antiwar protesters.
On camera was Lt. Col. Scott Stirewalt, head of security at Camp Johnson.
"We've had some spitting incidents. We've had some incidents with use of profanity," said Stirewalt.
"It gets worse," said Joyce. "Normally, uniformed Guard members draw little attention, but since the Iraq war started last week, some soldiers say their uniform has made them a target."
Then the WCAX newsman dropped the big one: "The most disturbing complaint came last Friday, the day of this protest in Montpelier. A female sergeant claims she was confronted by teenagers outside a convenience store near Plainfield. Lt. Col. Scott Stirewalt described the incident.
"As she was walking to her car," said Stirewalt, "there were various profanities directed in her direction along the line of [profanity] murderer, [profanity] baby killer and then it culminated when some of the individuals threw rocks at her and, as testament to her discipline and professionalism, she got in her car and left the area."
Threw rocks at a female Vermont National Guard soldier?
Hurry up, Ma, load the musket while I saddle the horse. These damn peaceniks have gone too far!
By Friday, the story of Vermont peace protesters stoning a soldier in uniform went national on Fox News.
At Sunday's Burlington demo in support of the president and the troops, Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie told the crowd he'd received 25 angry emails from around the country since Fox broadcast their report.
One demonstrator carried a sign, "Peaceniks Stop Harassing VT Guard." (More on that later.)
But the most disturbing part is the fact that, one week after the allegations surfaced, they remain completely and totally unsubstantiated. The Vermont Guard has declined to present any evidence whatsoever that the rock-throwing, profanity-hurling or "spitting" ever really happened.
In fact, since WCAX's first report, the story has changed. By Friday the location of the "rock-throwing" changed from a convenience store near Plainfield to the Shaw's supermarket in downtown Montpelier. The teenagers were identified as students from Twinfield Union High School who were in Montpelier that day to attend an antiwar protest.
And on Monday, one of the students bravely stepped forward at a school assembly to confront Adjutant Gen. Martha Rainville.
Django Koenig, age 15, denied that any students ever cursed or threw stones at the "Guard lady" who passed by them as she left Shaw's.
Rainville later told a reporter she "stands by" her soldier. And she bristled that anyone would have the "unfortunate" attitude of questioning the veracity of the secret accuser.
However, since the WCAX story broke, the Guard has been in back-pedaling mode. Official spokesman Capt. Jeff Roosevelt has done his best to play down the rock-throwing story.
The alleged victim, he said, did not wish to be identified. She had not notified police. The Guard had chosen not to investigate the matter. It was an isolated incident. In fact, Roosevelt said the rocks may have actually been small stones, even "pebbles." Let's drop it and move on. No big deal.
Roosevelt insisted that the Guard hadn't sought media attention. Stirewalt, he said, had merely emailed Guard members to alert them to the incident after the soldier reported it to him. Standard procedure. Ch. 3's Joyce had obtained a copy of the email and called the Guard for comment.
But many have raised questions about the propriety of Ch. 3 airing an unsubstantiated report. After all, the accuser would not come forward. The location was not identified. And the alleged perpetrators of the assault were not named, other than to say they were teenage peace protesters.
Given the present wartime reality, the WCAX story understandably ignited emotions. So it was no surprise that some in the crowd at Twinfield on Monday questioned Mr. Joyce's news judgment.
While yours truly wasn't there, we're told by those who were that the Ch. 3 reporter took the microphone and gave a response similar to the one he earlier gave yours truly. Our question to Joyce was, "Brian, do you believe it happened?"
"Wrong question," responded Joyce. "The question is: Do I believe that it is newsworthy and ethical to do a story sourced by a Vermont Guard Lt. Col. Security Chief who is willing to make the claims in an on-camera interview? The answer to that question is yes."
You may have noticed Mr. Joyce did not answer our question. We do know, however, that in his report Monday evening, he described the rock-throwing story as being based on "unsubstantiated allegations."
"There's a problem," Joyce told Ch. 3 viewers. "The Sergeant who allegedly claims that she was harassed here in this parking lot won't come forward to file a complaint with the police, and she won't even identify herself. So the facts about what really happened here are in dispute."
So are the "facts" relating to Lt. Col. Stirewalt's televised declaration that there had also been "spitting" incidents. That one touched a nerve.
We've all heard the oral history stories of antiwar protesters spitting on soldiers returning from Vietnam (though we've never seen one picture of such a despicable act.) Damn antiwar protesters, right?
In fact, it's become such a popular "war story" that nobody doubts its veracity, right?
At least, that is, not until Vietnam vet and Holy Cross College sociology professor Jerry Lembcke published The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. (New York University Press, 1998).
Lembcke tracked down hundreds of accounts of antiwar protesters spitting on Vietnam vets. He searched newspaper archives for photos. He found none. And in every case he chased, the trail evaporated.
The perpetuation of the "Spitting Myth," said Lembcke, is a way for those who wrongly supported the Vietnam War to falsely blame the antiwar movement for America's defeat.
Asked for details on the alleged Vermont Guard spitting incident, Capt Roosevelt told Seven Days Tuesday, "It was one incident." The unidentified Guard soldier who made the allegation, he said, "isn't talking about it any further."
But the damage has been done. Damage to the integrity and patriotism of all Vermonters who dearly love and support our troops, but cannot in good conscience support the reckless and flawed policy of the Bush regime that's placed them in harm's way.
Sen. Patrick Leahy was quite on the mark when he said such disrespectful behavior "is not the Vermont way." Vermonters on both sides of the Iraq invasion issue are united in that. And Vermonters on both sides would dearly love to see any citizen who abused a Guardsman held accountable -- if and when it should ever happen.
P.S. About that anti-peacenik protest sign in Battery Park. At one point when Lite-Gov Dubie was speaking, a gentleman we vaguely recognized (Pete Chagnon, a former one-term Republican state rep from Burlington), suddenly moved over to stand next to us. His sign condemned "Peaceniks" for harassing the Vermont Guard on one side. The other side read "Peaceniks: Saddam's Useful Fools."
Suddenly, Chagnon turned and asked if we'd hold his sign while he tied his shoe.
Happy to help a fellow American. But after about 30 seconds passed, we realized Mr. Chagnon had been taking an awful long time tying his shoelace. Maybe he was polishing, too?
As we looked around to the right, we realized we'd been had. A buddy of his was gleefully taking pictures of yours truly, protest sign in hand. It was a setup.
Mr. Chagnon also helped lead the heckling and booing when representatives of Leahy, Sen. Jim Jeffords and Rep. Bernie Sanders spoke on the need to back the troops and support our veterans, especially when the current regime is cutting verteran's health-care programs.
If those who oppose this war of choice are Saddam's fools, Mr. Chagnon, then who do you think are George W. Bush's fools?
Have you looked in the mirror lately?
Goldberg Does Hollywood -- Burlington's most prolific playwright Steve Goldberg premiered his new comedy hit last weekend at 135 Pearl Street. If you dig off-Broadway, you'll dig Hollywood.
Jim Lowe, distinguished arts editor of the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, described it in his Monday review as "a wickedly black little romantic comedy -- very dark, lots of fun, with just a touch of poignancy... Hollywood spoofs this country's movie capital, and, more importantly, the extent to which people will degrade themselves in search of success -- and they will go pretty far."
In the audience Sunday was a real "Hollywood" producer -- David Giancola, motion picture director/producer and co-owner of Edgewood Studios in Rutland.
According to Giancola, "Goldberg's Hollywood is hilariously satirical while also being cunningly insightful about the game played everyday in Hollywood."
(And for purposes of full disclosure, a certain Seven Days columnist does have a bit part. Hey, all the world's a stage, right?)
This weekend, Mr. Goldberg adds a second one-act to the bill with the premier of Tom and Don, a prison drama.
The shows run this Saturday and Sunday April 5-6 and Friday and Sunday April 11 and 13. The curtain is at 8 p.m.
Mink Update -- The lawyer representing pro hockey player Graham Mink of Stowe was back at the Palace of Justice in Burlington Tuesday morning for a status conference before Judge Brian Burgess. The purpose was to set a trial date for the former UVM hockey puck, now facing a felony aggravated assault charge.
As regular readers know, the Mink case has been hanging around a long time -- the late-night brawl on Burlington's Buell Street where Mink allegedly kicked an unconscious young man in the head occurred way back in September 2001.
Meanwhile, the Minkster, who pled not guilty and is free on bond, has been developing into a star forward with the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League. He'll shortly wrap up his second season, and the NHL is definitely in his future.
This week, Minky returns to the ice after serving a nine-game suspension for his role in a Slapshot-style brawl in the Pirates' March 8 game against the Providence Bruins.
According to press accounts, Mr. Mink leveled the Bruins' top scorer with an elbow and, in the ensuing melee, flipped one of the linesmen who was trying to restrain him.
Such behavior anywhere but on ice would likely have been a violation of Mink's conditions of release. He'd have been tossed in the slammer. On skates, however, it's sports, just part of the game.
Seven Days has learned that the prosecution plans on offering a videotape of the Providence brawl as evidence during trial. In addition, Deputy States Attorney Margaret Vincent told the court she plans tp present "seven or eight witnesses," including a doctor who will testify to the victim's injuries. The victim sustained a broken facial bone as well as persistent headaches, said Ms. Vincent.
That roused Mink's lawyer, R. Jeffrey Behm, to question whether the headaches are "relevant."
"There's no dispute about the broken facial bone," said Behm, "but there is a little dispute about the headaches."
That dispute involves a "threatened civil suit [against Mink], seeking fairly significant payment." Behm questioned the "motivation for claiming headaches."
Last month, we reported that Judge James Crucitti had finally issued a ruling denying Mink's motion for a change of venue due to media publicity. Behm argued unsuccessfully that his client couldn't get a fair and impartial jury in Chittenden County because of the lasting negative glow of the UVM Hockey Hazing Scandal of 1999.
Tuesday morning, Mr. Behm surprised the prosecution with a last-minute "Motion to Reconsider Denial of Change of Venue."
Behm cited as his evidence "a prominent and prejudicial article that appeared six days after Crucitti's ruling." He was referring to the "Mink Update" in our March 12 column. We reported on the judge's ruling and the big brawl in Providence.
Behm charged that "Inside Track" had been "prejudicial" in three ways.
"First, it describes the defendant as berserk and engaging in violent and vicious conduct against another person," wrote Mr. Behm. "Second, it suggests the court system has been preferentially lenient in its treatment of the defendant. Third, it reports that the defendant was quickly suspended by the hockey league for violent behavior and suggests that the court already should have done the same."
Flattery, Mr. Behm, will get you nowhere.
At present, the Mink trial has been tentatively scheduled to start on June 23. Admission, as always, is free of charge.