BURLINGTON — Police arrested two retired Air Force officers Monday evening for refusing to leave Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office in downtown Burlington, as part of an ongoing protest against the basing of F-35s at Burlington International Airport.
Retired Col. Rosanne Greco and retired Lt. Col. Roger Bourassa delivered a list of requests to Leahy’s office late afternoon, pledging to stay until Leahy agreed to them. Greco and Bourassa arrived at Leahy’s office at 4:30 p.m., an hour before it closed at 5:30, and were arrested just after 6:45.
Leahy and his staff played a central role in the decision to base the jets in Burlington, VTDigger reported last year.
While Leahy has denied working to sway the basing process, his staff worked with military officials on media messaging and other issues. This frustrated military officials, some of whom believed the result had been predestined for political reasons, according to internal government documents.
Two F-35s are set to arrive at Burlington International Airport this month, and two more are scheduled to arrive every two months until the full fleet of 18 reaches the region next summer.
Greco and Bourassa demanded that Leahy “direct” the Air Force to delay sending the F-35s to Vermont until the F-35 has 1 million flight hours; public hearings are held; funding is secured to purchase all the homes in the “unsuitable for residential use zone”; the Department of Defense provides more information on the F-35’s nuclear role and there is a full investigation of the basing process.
Greco and Bourassa’s document accused Leahy of influencing the basing decision and lying repeatedly to the Air Force and the people of Vermont.
“Senator Leahy, in spite of ‘overwhelming evidence’ that led the Air Force to conclude that Burlington was the wrong place to base the F-35, exerted so much pressure on the Air Force leadership that they ignored the facts, over-ruled their experts, and chose Burlington,” the document states.
While Leahy has been steadfast in his support of the F-35 basing, Greco said she was trying to appeal to his morality by pointing out the “immoralities” of the basing. Greco said the F-35s are a “weapon of mass destruction” which will have a major impact on the neighborhoods around the airport.
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“We know Sen. Leahy is a good, moral man, and we are hoping by pointing out the immoralities of this, it will prompt him to do the right thing,” she said.
Greco and Bourassa arrived at Leahy’s Main Street office just after 4:30, and spoke with John Tracy, Leahy’s state director. Tracy said that Leahy was not in the state and said he would send the documents to the senator.
“He’s not inclined to request that the Air Force delay the F-35,” he said. “I wouldn’t agree with the language you used, some of the terminology.”
Tracy reemerged at 5:38 p.m., informing the duo that the office was closing and requesting they leave.
Tracy read a prepared statement that said the Air Force had conducted an Environmental Impact Statement on the basing. He said that the F-35s coming to Burlington do not have nuclear mission, and there are no facilities to store nuclear weapons. Leahy would be opposed to the mission if it was nuclear, Tracy said.
“The Vermont National Guard has remained committed to working with the community as the Guard transitions to its new mission,” Tracy said.
Tracy offered to meet with Greco and Bourassa Tuesday, which they declined.
Deputy Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad and another officer arrived just after 6:10 p.m. and engaged Greco and Bourassa in a lengthy discussion in an attempt to have the duo exit the building on their own volition.
Murad argued that the group would get just as much media attention to their cause if they left the office without an arrest.
“I think now that you’ve gotten the majority of what you are looking for, which is an airing of your grievances and the ability to talk about your position in front of cameras … and be able to have your story told by all these outlets, I’m hopeful we can all take that elevator downstairs together,” he said.
Greco and Bourassa refused, and were both cited for unlawful trespass.
Greco said after her arrest that she would be willing to get arrested again.
“What’s been going on here with the F-35s has been a series of immoral acts, culminating with a possible immoral impact on close to 7,000 people in this area,” Greco said. “It demands of me a little more.”
The amount of households affected by average noise levels of more than 65 decibels will triple with the arrival of the F-35s, from 819 dwelling units in 2015 to an estimated 2,640 in 2023, according to the airport’s noise map. Areas with that average noise level are considered “unsuitable for residential use” by the federal government.
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Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said in a recent interview with VTDigger that concerns about the increased noise impact have been unfairly amplified in the media.
Leahy, Weinberger and Sen. Bernie Sanders argue that cancellation of the mission would have a negative effect on the region’s economy.
Leahy’s involvement in the basing decision has been the focus of media scrutiny in the past.
One Pentagon official told VTDigger in 2018 that “the Air Force was forced into the Burlington decision” by Leahy. The official also said Leahy staff “intentionally got involved with making sure the operational data and inputs were as least severe as possible.”
Months before the official decision to base the jets in Burlington was set in June 2013, Leahy staffers reached out to the Air Force after a news story reported 65% of public comment was against basing. Leahy staffers said the Air Force “should have characterized some of the public comments differently” to reflect more support, documents show.
The Boston Globe reported in 2013 that a pentagon official said the base-selection process was “fudged” to ensure the basing of the jets in Leahy’s home state. The decision raised questions about “whether the Air Force deliberately sought to reward a key friend in Congress with a squadron of advanced fighter jets for his state,” the Globe reported.
Leahy, in a 2018 interview with VTDigger, denied he played an outsized role in the basing decision.
“If I was advocating, I was doing what everybody else was doing,” Leahy said. “I don’t think a senator from a state of 600,000 people is going to be able to tell the Air Force what to do.”
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