BARRE — While serving in Iraq several years ago, Thomas James Hermann had what he called an awakening.
Hermann, a Barre farm worker, spent 16 months in the country after signing up for the Army soon after the March 2003 invasion. At the time, it was a war he supported. That perspective quickly changed.
"I began to have a lot of empathy for the people of Iraq and that really opened my eyes," said the Iraq war veteran on Thursday at the Old Labor Hall in Barre. "I saw that there are more than just two sides to every situation."
Hermann is now challenging U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, Vermont's freshman Democrat, who he says has fallen far short of his campaign promises in 2006 to rein in the politics of President Bush's administration and end the five-year-old war in Iraq.
The 29-year-old is running as a member of the Vermont Progressive Party and is the only major party candidate challenging Welch this year in the general election after the state's Republican Party failed to put forward a candidate.
"I spent 16 months in Iraq and saw lives destroyed on both sides," Hermann said. "I saw corporate abuse and profiteering and witnessed the resurrection of a failed policy.
"So, I've laid down my rifle and picked up intellectual arms," he added, at his campaign announcement Thursday as a small crowd of supporters and media gathered at the 1900-era former meeting house built by members of the Socialist Labor Party.
Hermann faces an uphill battle against Welch, who has nearly $1 million in the bank to spend during the primary and general elections (he will face a primary challenge from Craig Hill of Montpelier, a former member of the Green Party).
Carolyn Dwyer, the campaign manager for Welch, said in a statement Thursday that the congressman has "opposed the war before it began and has been a consistent voice in opposition to the war since becoming a member of Congress.
"Congressman Welch looks forward to continuing his conversation with Vermonters about the challenges we face and how we can work together to find productive solutions," she said.
Hermann grew up in Florida and is a recent resident of Vermont — he just moved here earlier this year. As a member of the Army's infantry, he served in 150 combat missions during his first 12 months in Iraq. He was then stop-lossed and served in the country for an additional four months.
Earlier this week, he handed in 837 signatures from voters in 113 towns to be on the Progressive ballot in November for U.S. Congress. The signatures were gathered in less than a week, he said.
"I came to Vermont because I was seeking a sense of community," he said. "I didn't find that in Florida. But Vermont has been very welcoming."
Supporters of Hermann's campaign may be familiar faces for Welch as he has faced their criticism in the past.
Newfane resident Dan DeWalt, who led last year's grassroots drive to impeach President Bush, is acting as campaign manager.
Other active supporters include Burlington attorney James Leas, who lobbied the Vermont Legislature to pass Bush impeachment resolutions, and Adrian Kinney, another Army veteran who is a prominent local member of the group Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Hermann won over one voter during his announcement event Thursday. Sandra Vitzthum, a Montpelier architect, described herself as a lifelong Republican who hasn't voted for one of the party's congressional or national candidates in 15 years.
"I think this is a real opportunity to reverse the corruption in government," she said.
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