By Dylan Kelley
Several hundred citizens of Chittenden County gathered at Burlington’s Unitarian Universalist Church Thursday evening to conduct a “citizens hearing” and express their ever-increasing opposition to the coming arrival of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft. From the moment of BTV’s selection as a home base for the new aircraft, citizens from nearby Burlington; South Burlington; Winooski; and others have been passionately and diligently organizing to prevent the arrival of the world’s most expensive weapons platform at the Vermont Air Guard headquarters of Burlington International Airport.
Underwritten by ice-cream icon Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s fame, the citizens’ hearing also played host to Rabbi Joshua Chasan, “Granma” Carmine Sargent, Col. Rosanne Greco, and engineer Pierre Sprey; each of whom level differing but severe criticisms at the F-35 program and its scheduled residence at BTV. Citing scripture, Rabbi Chasan of Burlington’s Ohavi Zedek synagogue compared the F-35’s decision makers to those in Ezekiel who have “eyes to see but see not; and ears to hear, but hear not.” Noting the impact to the New American community surrounding the F-35’s planned flight path, Chasan reminded the hearing’s attendees of the psychological affects upon refugees living in high noise areas “as if they were homesick for the fearsome sounds of the engines of war” drawing cheers from the hall. Continuing slowly and methodically, Rabbi Chasan drew further cheers as he made a thinly veiled criticism of Gov. Peter Shumlin, proclaiming “none of us need big business owners to fly us to Florida to hear the sounds of warplanes.” Chasan closed with the first of many calls to action to the community “Be strong, be strong and let us strengthen each other.”
In addition to a recently produced video, featured speakers included the highly decorate Colonel Rosanne Greco of the USAF and Pierre Sprey; each of whom brought wide-ranging expertise on fields such as veterans affairs, military expenditures, and aeronautical engineering to bear in their pointed criticism of the F-35. Commenting on the particular toll the F-35 will take on American armed forces, Colonel Greco (also recent Chair of the South Burlington City Council) noted that the price for the world’s most expensive weapons platform will be laid “on the backs of service men and women” and described plans to cut service members pay; disability services; access to healthcare and education; programs to assist service members’ families; as well as the 800,000 American veterans experiencing homelessness. Speaking more on the technical drawbacks of the F-35, aeronautical engineer and former Pentagon employee Pierre Sprey described the numerous technical flaws of the aircraft, including it’s less than aerodynamic cross-section that Sprey likens to “a pregnant pig.” Continuing through a litany of technical flaws (everything from flight range, maneuverability, false notions of stealth, and costliness) Sprey also spoke at length on the overwhelming volume of the F-35. Already 4x louder than the F-16’s stationed at BTV (which Sprey helped design); the F-35’s noise rating was calculated without the use of afterburner as way of under-rating the noise level on take-off. With the likely use of afterburners for a BTV takeoff, the F-35 becomes “thunderous” and “louder than anything I’ve ever heard” asserts Sprey. As he closed his remarks to the attentive crowd, Sprey gave the audience a piece of advice “If anybody accuses you of being anti-American for opposing the F-35, I suggest you laugh in their face.”
Most compelling of the speakers on Friday evening was “Gramma” Carmine Sargent, a resident of the South Burlington and emerging leader of the growing movement to stop the expensive aircraft so near to affected communities. “There could’ve been a better way to do this” said Carmine as she acknowledged the false logic of the aircraft’s property de-valuing affect in a region already stressed by low housing availability and homelessness. Emotionally recalling the slow decline of her neighborhood on the 41st anniversary of moving into her home, Carmine recalled the feeling of a community hollowed out “I felt like my little area of the world became little Detroit. I felt like I was a bystander in my own life. The F-35 feels like the final act of bringing the wrecking ball to our neighborhood: Our homes are our greatest assets, we deserve a say in what happens.” In closing, Sargent set a new bar for both the tone of the movement to oppose the F-35 as well as those passionately taking stances on other issues around the Green Mountain State, underscoring the point of the growing movement was not about being anti-military or anti-development, but pro-community: “It’s time to talk about what we’re for, not just what we’re against” she said, drawing enormous cheers and a standing ovation from the packed sanctuary of the U.U.
Following the speakers, the slightly over-heated audience slowly filed out of the white steeple church and enthusiastically enjoyed free ice cream provided by the events underwriter, Ben Cohen. For a moment, it was easy to forget that each of these smiling citizens were upset, distressed, and angry about the decision of their elected representatives to provide a Green Mountain roost for the expensive and ineffectual warbird. Yet, behind the smiles and friendly handshakes so familiar to Vermonters; it was clear that a handful of all-too-familiar names had achieved a maligned status: Miro Weinberger. Peter Shumlin. Peter Welch. Patrick Leahy. Bernie Sanders. In no uncertain terms, these citizens had resolved to hold the powerful men with powerful names accountable. Come hell or high water, the F-35’s most formidable opponent will likely be closer to home than its fumbling designers could’ve ever planned for.