By KIRAN SURY
There is Sgt. Jacob Payne, 26, from Texas, who speaks in slow, measured sentences with a classic southern drawl and still says negative instead of no. He thinks Mitt Romney is a “sneaky little sucker,” but will probably vote for him if he can’t cast a ballot for Ron Paul.
There is Sgt. Daniel Kim, 25, from California, who has a hearty laugh and a penchant for comic books, which he refers to as graphic novels. He voted for John McCain in 2008 because, in his words, “Obama pissed me off.” But he will vote for Barack Obama this November. He is Republican.
There is Sgt. Julia Venegas, 25, also from Texas, who is engaged and goes to school for media studies in North Carolina. She had Thanksgiving dinner with McCain a few years ago and wishes he would run again. She will vote for Romney not out of loyalty, but because at this point she will settle for “anybody but Obama.” She too is Republican.
There is Cpl. Eli Robbins, 27, from Utah, who recalls a childhood filled with drive-by shootings and the Japanese anime Cowboy Bebop. He considers his vote for Ralph Nader one of the least important things he did while serving in Iraq. “My vote wasn’t going to count anyway,” he said, “because I didn’t vote for a Republican or Democrat.” He doesn’t know whom he will vote for this fall, but it will not be for a candidate from either of the two major parties. He is proudly independent.
Finally, there is Sgt. Ramon Nicolas Howard, 28, from New York, who has both a grinning skull that represents his amphibious assault unit and the Sanskrit word “mukti,” meaning spiritual freedom and liberation, tattooed on his right arm. He has not voted since Bush v. Gore in 2000, when he was registered as a Democrat. “Voting, just, I don’t,” he said. “It doesn’t work for me.”
These five Marines are just a few of the hundreds of thousands of veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. They come from different parts of the country, belong to different political parties, and have different views on the most important issues of the upcoming election. But they are united in one thing – their disappointment in both the Democratic ad Republican parties, and their candidates for president.
Both Obama and Romney are aggressively courting veterans’ votes, most recently in swing-state Virginia. At campaign events in late September, both candidates accused the other of not making the military a high priority.
“The idea of cutting our military commitment by a trillion dollars over this decade is unthinkable and devastating,” Romney said. “And when I become president of the United States, we will stop it. I will not cut our commitment to the military.”
The Obama campaign responded by reminding voters of Romney’s “47 percent” remarks. “Mitt Romney would like Virginians to forget how he disdainfully wrote off half of all Americans, including veterans and active-duty members, at a fund-raiser with high-dollar donors,” a spokeswoman said in an e-mail statement.
The Marines’ disenchantment with the presidential candidates comes at a time when there is a larger shift away from party affiliation in the military. According to a survey conducted by the Military Times in 2010, the percentage of military personnel who were Republicans decreased by one-third since 2004, while the percentage of independents nearly doubled during the same period. Polls by the Pew Research Center in 2011 found that Republicans and independents could each lay claim little over a third of post-9/11 veterans, while Democrats comprise a fifth of those who responded.
Philip Napoli, assistant professor at the Brooklyn College Department of History and director of the Veterans Oral History Project, theorizes that the shift could be attributed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “At the beginning of the 2000s, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, soldiers and veterans strongly identified with the Republicans. However, there is some evidence indicating that today’s soldiers are shifting away from the Republican Party,” he wrote in response to emailed questions. “That could be because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are so closely identified with President Bush and the Republicans. However it could simply be the case that soldier’s political affiliations are reflective of broad national trends.”
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Sgt. Kim considers healthcare to be the most important issue facing America. Combat veterans from Iraq get free general health care for up to five years after their service, and are covered for any disabilities for life due to their combat role. His concern is fiscal, not medical.
“Healthcare is going to be such a huge part of the budget, of the debt, of what we’re going to have to combat or try and fix over the next couple of years,” he said.
Cpl. Robbins has experienced this first hand. “Since I’m a disabled vet health insurance isn’t a really big issue for me,” he said. “But my wife, her health insurance spiked. It went up 20 percent this year, which is ridiculous.” He blames the cost increase on Obama’s healthcare plan.
In contrast to Cpl. Robbins, Sgt. Kim and Sgt. Howard support the individual mandate to buy health insurance included in Obama’s plan, which Sgt. Kim called a step towards building a better budget. Sgt. Payne acknowledges that Obama has the right idea for health insurance reform, but said that he is going about it the wrong way.
“Everybody who has it knows it’s a good thing to have, but some people really just can’t afford it,” he said in a telephone interview. “I’ve been out of a job for too long now, and I know I can’t afford health insurance. They should certainly work on the unemployment situation before they start worrying about healthcare. They’re not prioritizing correctly.”
With the unemployment rate at 11.6 percent for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan as of last year, unemployment and the economy weigh heavily on Sgt. Venegas. “There’s a lot that goes into the economy,” she said over the phone. “If that was to improve or change then a lot of the other problems would kind of like fall into place.”
Sgt. Payne had a similar view. “I think Romney’s more qualified to get us out of the gutter that we’re in,” he said, citing Romney’s business experience at Bain Capital as an edge over Obama. In contrast, Sgt. Kim said that Romney’s foreign policy gaffes negate that. “I can’t look at him without poking holes in all of his arguments. Somebody like that, to me, can’t run a country,” he said.
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Sgt. Howard explains his reluctance to vote as a form of resistance. “I’m not Democratic, I’m not Republican, if anything, I’m a patriot. I love my country, hate 90 percent of the people in charge, but I love this country,” he said. “And I love the potential it has to do good, that we’re not taking advantage of.” But he refuses to choose between what he calls “the lesser of two evils.”
Sgt. Payne echoes the feelings of being trapped in a system with only two viable candidates. “I don’t feel like either of the candidates – either of the primary candidates – are really worth their salt,” he said. “What are you going to do? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, really.”
Cpl. Robbins further sums up the problem. “It’s great to be able to vote,” he said. “But what’s the right to vote if, you know, your vote doesn’t count if you don’t want to vote for a Democrat or a Republican?”
Said Sgt. Kim: “I’m voting for Obama. Or I’m going to pencil myself in.”