Vermonters favoring the deployment of a new generation of war planes at the Burlington airport will have trouble depicting one of their chief opponents as an unpatriotic wimp.
Roger Bourassa, a public face of the Stop the F-35 Coalition, has a red-white-and-blue, star-spangled résumé that includes a three-year stint with the U.S. Marine Corps. He also served 13 years in the National Guard in Vermont, New York and Maine, and another 13 as an Air Force Academy liaison officer, retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Bourassa, 73, took part in the invasion of Lebanon in 1958 and flew wartime transport missions to Vietnam. With Donna, his wife of 49 years, Bourassa raised six children and was active in the Lutheran Church.
A native of Winooski, he grew up seeing and hearing National Guard aircraft soaring and screaming above his home. Those flights inspired Bourassa to become a military pilot himself, but he failed an eye exam and had to settle for a career as a navigator on a variety of fighter planes, including the F-89 Scorpion and F-101 Voodoo.
Those were defensive aircraft, Bourassa notes during an interview in his Colchester condo, where he still hears the boom of National Guard jets as they hurtle into the Vermont sky. The F-35, however, is “an attack plane,” Bourassa says, designed for use in what he calls the “imperialist wars” the United States is waging in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He’ll make those points at an October 13 forum at the Chamberlin School in South Burlington sponsored by the Stop the F-35 Coalition. The meeting is part of an effort to rally opposition to the possibility that two dozen stealth fighters will be stationed at BTV seven years from now.
Proponents of the basing plan, including all three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation, say the F-35s will help protect the country, generate jobs and ensure the continued mission of the Green Mountain Boys. Coalition activists living near the airport tend to argue against the deployment on environmental grounds, charging that it will produce unbearable noise pollution and foul Chittenden County’s air with benzene emissions. Others, such as Bourassa, see the F-35 primarily as an expression of a militaristic U.S. foreign policy.
Describing himself as “extremely patriotic,” the soft-spoken suburbanite explains, “My love of country is based on an America that is an example of democracy in the world, and I think we’re failing democratically today.” Bourassa echoes Dwight Eisenhower, the president under whom he served in Lebanon, in condemning a “military-industrial complex” that encourages aggressive U.S. behavior in the Middle East and beyond.
“Our foreign policy involves using military means so we can remain a very prosperous nation,” Bourassa says. “But we need to be concerned about the global climate and about the billions of people who are living on $2 a day. Our country shouldn’t be accumulating resources but sharing resources.”
A University of Vermont professor deserves some credit for shaping Bourassa’s worldview: Harold Schultz taught a course on American diplomatic history that deeply affected Bourassa 45 years ago. He had enrolled at UVM after leaving the Marine Corps and joined the Vermont National Guard while an undergraduate. Bourassa simultaneously became an opponent of the war in Vietnam, and he brought his antiwar advocacy to the U.S. Air Force Air Command and Staff College in Alabama, where he earned a master’s in international relations.
In keeping with his belief in the transformative power of education, Bourassa became a social studies teacher and later served as a high school principal in both Randolph and Winooski. He held the post of superintendent in the Orange Southwest, Colchester and Franklin West supervisory districts for a total of 17 years.
Bourassa’s father was at least as influential as formal educators on the peace-loving patriot. Joseph Bourassa, born in Québec in 1905, migrated to Vermont as a boy and found work as a factory laborer in the American Woolen Mill in Winooski. Roger grew up speaking French and learned from his father to respect trade unions and the values behind Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
More recently, he supported the campaign of Barack Obama, but has grown “very disappointed” with the president’s performance, mainly because “his approach to the Middle East is so unbalanced.” Bourassa traveled last year to the West Bank and was teargassed during a demonstration against the Israeli occupation. He has also taken part in protests in Washington against the war in Iraq. He’s now opposed to the “unwinnable war” in Afghanistan as well, even though he initially supported the U.S. invasion as a justified response to the terror attacks of 2001.
Bourassa’s active retirement is not devoted solely to the cause of peace. He’s a member of the Colchester Development Review Board and works with a local chapter of the AARP.
Despite the political clout of the forces arrayed in support of the F-35s, Bourassa says he’s hopeful that the local deployment can still be prevented. Much will depend on the conclusions of an environmental impact statement that the Air Force is preparing for scheduled release in January. The Air Force announced in July that BTV and Hill Air Force Base in Utah are the “preferred alternatives” for F-35 operations, but added that a final decision will not be made until the environmental assessment is completed.
“Vermont is really the last place that should be hosting this plane,” declares Jimmy Leas, an attorney active with the Stop the F-35 Coalition. Pointing to the efforts of Bourassa and other local peace advocates, Leas says the state’s strong antiwar sentiment can prevail over “this weapon of mass destruction.”