• Breach of faith
    January 14,2005

    "Put the Vermonters ahead." Those were the words of Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick as the Union army approached Gettysburg in 1863. The words now emblazon the crest of the Vermont National Guard units that have descended from the Vermont Brigade, which endured some of the bloodiest fighting of the Civil War.

    No one can accuse the Vermont National Guard of shirking its duty in the present war. Vermont service personnel have suffered the highest per capita fatality rate in the nation. And when a new mobilization occurs in several weeks, 47 percent of the Vermont Army National Guard will have been mobilized.

    But in asking much of Vermont's soldiers, and the soldiers of the nation, the military leadership has commitments of its own to fulfill. The Pentagon is now considering a policy that would break faith with those now serving in the Guard by subjecting them to indefinite service. When they signed up, members of the Guard understood they would owe 24 months of active duty service. They were not signing up for full-time duty, and it would be a breach of faith to force it upon them.

    The Bush administration has been loath to suggest it might have to institute the draft. An unpopular war in Iraq would become infinitely more unpopular if unwilling conscripts were called upon to serve. Instead, the Pentagon is relying on the Reserves and the National Guard to an unprecedented degree. In addition, service personnel have been subjected to surprises such as the military's stop-loss policy, which permits the military to refuse to allow servicemen and women to leave the service when their time is up.

    The possibility of extending the service of Guard members has prompted the opposition of Maj. Gen. Martha Rainville, adjutant general of the Vermont Guard. She is a member of the Reserve Forces Policy Board, which advises the Pentagon on issues related to the Guard and Reserves, and so her voice, and the voice of other adjutants general, will be heard.

    According to Rainville, forcing Guard members to serve indefinitely would have a damaging effect on Guard recruitment and retention. So ultimately, the policy could be counterproductive.

    On Tuesday, Gov. James Douglas issued a statement opposing the change in policy:

    "Efforts to extend the two-year limitation are a great disservice to the men and women who have volunteered to serve and who loyally guard our freedom. Termination of the limitation would fundamentally alter the federal mission of the Guard, hamper recruitment, and dramatically compound the stress of families, friends and employers. I am unalterably opposed to this proposal. These brave men and women, and their families, continue to keep their commitment to this nation; this nation should keep its commitment to them."

    He was joining Sen. Patrick Leahy, who had already issued a statement with Sen. Kit Bond, a Republican from Missouri, opposing the extensions.

    There is something else to remember about Vermonters in the Civil War. Some soldiers enlisted for tours of only nine months, and it was the nine-month soldiers of the Second Vermont Brigade who attacked the Confederates' flank during Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. Days later, they were out of the service. They did their duty. No one forced them to stay on.

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