Members of the U.S. military swear an oath to defend the Constitution rather than an individual leader. But this supposed political neutrality does little to deter politicians from claiming the troops as their own, or from using the veteran vote as a fulcrum. Since the Khans, a Muslim couple whose son lost his life in Iraq, appeared this summer at the Democratic National Convention to denounce Donald Trump’s immigration stance, the armed forces have been cited, courted, and conjured by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Just a few weeks ago, the Trump and Hillary Clinton campaigns published, within days of each other, lengthy lists of endorsements from retired members of the top brass. Days before the candidates took questions from veterans at a forum in New York, Trump announced a (tenuous, at best) plan to vastly increase military spending in the hopes of bolstering troop support. Last week, the Clinton campaign released a television spot in which a veteran shakes his head in disgust watching the Republican nominee run his mouth about his own “sacrifices.” And when Clinton, in a much-cited incident, referred to a number of Trump supporters as deplorable racists, the Trump campaign—which leads significantly among service members—jumped at the opportunity to interpret her words as a sign of disrespect for the troops.
For the candidates, using the military as a talking point is sometimes a pragmatic move, an attempt to prove they’re qualified to be the nation’s commander-in-chief. But just as often it’s the ultimate shorthand, a way to transmit a nebulous sense of patriotism by invoking the unfathomable sacrifices of those who rarely have the opportunity to speak for themselves.
The military rank and file may be crucial to the optics of these campaigns, but they’re a relatively small population, an oft-overlooked minority outside of election years. It’s been estimated that 7.3% of the United States’ population is currently or formerly enlisted; only one half of 1% have been on active duty at any given moment in the last decade.
Today, the civilian-military divide is stark and troubling; the “family business" of war, in which veterans’ children are more likely to enlist, consolidates its culture, generation by generation. Reintegration services—getting veterans back to school or work—are still, by many accounts, ineffective. Veteran health care, as investigations have repeatedly shown, is an admitted disaster, a total disgrace. In America, a veteran commits suicide every 72 minutes.
As one Air Force veteran told me recently, “I don’t think anyone really cares about service members. People like to say, 'Thank you for your service,' and go on their way.”
Within this rarely addressed, oft-appropriated group, the number of women and people of color is growing, but you don’t hear much about female service members on the campaign trail. They are generally more racially diverse than enlisted men; they are more likely to be critical of America’s post-9/11 wars; their numbers have been swelling steadily since the ‘70s. For their service, in addition to the challenges their brothers in arms face, they endure harassment, assault, and humiliation. And, as women who serve their country moving through the ranks of male-dominated fields, they have a particular perspective on the prospect of a female commander-in-chief.
So I asked a number of female veterans—veterans who led platoons in Iraq, veterans who ran drills in the Navy, veterans who were discharged before I was born—how it feels to watch this campaign unfold. I found, among others, a black McCain supporter and a woman who became convinced of the merits of socialism in the service. “The veteran and the military vote is always treated like a monolith,” one reminded me, a little saltily. “But of course it’s not.”
Mary Tobin, 36
Chesapeake Beach, Maryland
Captain: Army, 2003-2012
To this day, when I tell people I went to West Point, I'm the only black woman who went West Point they've ever met. September 11th happened when I was in school, so we knew we were going to war; my whole class knew. Six months from the day I graduated, on May 31, 2003, I was in Baghdad.
My first deployment, when I was 23, I was the communications officer in the field artillery unit, the combat arms unit. I was a platoon leader, and the only woman in my unit, in charge of 50 men. When the American units got fired upon we had to go and analyze the craters, from where the rockets land.
We’d talk politics sometimes in the tactical center with some of the senior officers. They were all Republican, all white males. They all assumed I was a Democrat, but I was Independent. Actually, don’t kill me, but when Barack Obama ran the first time I didn’t vote for him. I voted for John McCain. He was a war hero, and you have to understand, for me, coming out of a war—I’d lost several soldiers, that was my whole perspective in life, who was going to take care of the troops. And I’m thinking, Who is this community activist coming out of Chicago?
Now if I see a candidate or a president of a politician that's warmongering, who says we should go in and just defeat them, I literally turn my ears off. I think they just don't understand the weight of their words.
When we go into a place, we're committing ourselves to stabilize whatever is happening in that region. So that's combat action but that's also money, time, experts, careers changing in the military. It’s possible injuries. I'm an 80% disabled veteran so those are things I can’t get back. You know, when I’m going to the VA for treatment, when I'm waiting six months to a year for an appointment, I have to be okay with my service. Or else I'll be bitter.
So a few years ago when we caught and killed Osama bin Laden, I was standing on top of my couch, just yelling. I was thinking about all the people I’ve lost as a result of the war. But at the same time, I was in the audience at the commander-in-chief forum when Hillary Clinton openly said Iraq was a mistake. She took responsibility. It’s almost impossible to articulate, it’s like a balm. You can’t put it on our wounds, not really, but to hear a leader say: "Look, that may not have been the best course of action." I can’t tell you what that does for us.
It’s phenomenal, the idea of having a female commander-in-chief. It changes people’s ideas about what marginalized groups can accomplish. And it’s not just her sitting in the seat. It’s the second, third-order effects of having a woman in the most powerful seat in the world. The rest of the world is killing it with female prime ministers and so forth, and we’re still playing catch-up.
But it’s still maddening to see our leaders, especially generals, being used as pawns to sway the masses this year. I don’t think that it’s very responsible to use service members as weapon number one and then treat us like second-class citizens here. My generation and the one right behind me, we’re in our twenties and thirties, and we’re hiding it well, but we’re messed up. Sexual assault, in particular, is having a devastating effect on our women veterans. The media glosses over that part a lot.
I think it’s really a patriarchal mindset that keeps some of these guys leaning towards Trump. In a lot of ways the military, in terms of institutions in America, has lead the charge in terms of diversity and inclusion. We integrated the military before we integrated schools. But we’re still dominated by white men. It’s a patriarchy, and it’s misogynist, and it’s very machismo. So at the end of the day the military has not evolved to the point where we can readily accept women in positions of power.
Of course, I spent my entire military career with white men in my unit. Those guys are my brothers. And they know Donald Trump is not the brightest lightbulb in the pack. But they’ll say things like, "Oh, it’s [Hillary’s] emails. Oh, it’s abortion rights." But you don’t really care about any of that. What you care about is the fact that it’s someone with testicles in that position of power, and I’ve seen that in the army all the time. I couldn’t tell you what Donald Trump could do that would make some of those guys not vote for him.
Veronica M., 25
Specialist: Army, 2009-2013
I was born in California, and right after high school I joined. I come from an extended family that was pretty military, so it was always an option they kind of pushed on me. I deployed once, did half the deployment in Iraq and half the deployment in Kuwait. I worked in the intelligence field. Before I went overseas, thinking about international politics—what our stance is in NATO, where we should keep missiles, how many people we need stationed in South Korea—it was all so abstract. It had no meaning. I couldn't possibly understand all of the effort and the cost that would go into carrying out a policy.
My service was an eye-opener. I realized that, actually, militarism was probably not the solution to most problems across the world. Perhaps diplomacy would be better, in the age in which there are no conventional militaries.
Republicans have always been on the side of saying, "We support the military the most," but maybe this time it’s a little different, because Trump has been so insulting. I remember he skipped a debate to donate to the veterans, but it ended up being a scammy veterans’ thing, and he didn’t actually give any money [until reporters leaned on him about the donations, months later]. Every time I see on CNN or MSNBC that the majority of military families and people in the military vote Republican no matter what, I feel like it’s voting against their own self-interest.
The veteran and the military vote is always treated like a monolith, and of course it’s not. Veterans here in Portland are pretty good on social issues, but if I were to be speaking to the veterans in Texas it would be different. They would support me and do whatever they could for a fellow veteran. But then if it came up, for example, that I was queer, or liberal, they would hate me. There’s a divide amongst veterans, and it’s not pretty.
In terms of my preference it goes: Jill Stein, Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson, Donald Trump. I’ll be protest-voting for Jill Stein, same as I did in 2012. I know Oregon is safely going to Hillary so don’t worry, I’m not bucking the two party system.
Clinton’s obviously sleazy, she’s not a very good candidate; I imagine she’s the only possible person who could make this a competitive race. I think older women really see her as breaking some glass ceiling, and being an equalizer, but I’m 25, and for all of my adult life equality has been mostly in the abstract. I mean, this isn’t Mad Men. Things are better now. Do I think having a female president would be a good thing for the country? Yeah. But I don’t think I’ll ever understand how older women, the die-hards, feel about it. It’s not like she’s waving any flags, getting anyone really excited. When she called part of Trump’s supporters deplorable racists, I was like, "Yeah! Thanks for calling them out." And then she immediately walked it back, went into politician mode.
Brittany Ballew, 31
Air Force, 2009-2015
I enlisted right after my 24th birthday and started basic training. I’d been getting more active and interested in politics, I wanted to do my part. I know that’s not a typical answer, but it was a political decision. A lot of my family is in the Air Force. I’m generally moderate, but more liberal-leaning. I voted for John Kerry, then Obama twice.
The stereotype that most military people vote Republican is, in my experience, true. But I don’t think they’re conservative for the reasons the country thinks; I think they’re conservative because they don’t put too much thought into it. The general consensus is that the military gets better pay raises from Republican administrations. Honestly, I don’t think a lot of people in the military realize just how socialist it is, that socialism is the entire lifestyle they’re living. The way the structure works, with the health care we get. I saw that it actually did work. That experience made me way more liberal than I was before.
I can tell you who I think has the veteran vote, and the active duty vote, and it’s not Hillary or Trump, it’s Gary Johnson. He’s non-interventionist. I’m definitely not anywhere close to Libertarian, but he’s the most level-headed person, and he would take other people’s opinions into account. I don’t put too much stock in presidents and politics anymore; the president hardly gets to do anything they promise. I did sign up for that [PAC-funded, vote-matching] Balanced Rebellion thing, so I know my vote cancels out. I’m not giving my vote to Trump.
I think people in the military don’t like Clinton because, well, we all have security clearance, and security training. And I was actually a big supporter of hers in 2008. I don’t care enough about having a woman commander-in-chief to be voting for her purely because she has a vagina.
I don’t think anyone really cares about service members. People like to say, "Thank you for your service," and go on their way.
Morgan M. Hurley, 56
San Diego, California
Chief Petty Officer: Navy and Naval Reserves, 1980-2003
I was raised in a Democratic household. I don’t want to make it sound like I was a staunch Republican while I was in the military, I just felt like I had to go along with, you know, the infamous old boy network. Reagan was all: military, military, even though we weren’t involved in any kind of conflict at the time. But because of the Cold War and everything, he still spent a lot of money on it.
There was kind of an unspoken feeling, one that I remember very specifically, that I needed to vote for him. I was really ignorant of politics at the time. I was so focused on being in the military and being gay and not being found out. This was before “don’t ask, don’t tell,” they were spending a lot of money on witch hunts.
Trump’s been calling the military a joke, and worthless, and he’s said some terrible things about the generals. That he knows more than the generals. He didn’t even go to Vietnam. I mean— bone spurs. C’mon. It just falls under that thing he said once, that he could just walk into Times Square and shoot somebody and he’d still have the vote.
Clinton is the most qualified candidate we’ve had in a long time. Even her husband, and Barack Obama, don’t know about half of what she knows now. I blame the State Department for what happened to her, with the email situation. It’s not like she just ran to Best Buy herself. Someone knew she was doing it.
I know there are people who are in the military, and friends of mine, that look at all these things a very different way, but for example: Colin Kaepernick. You know, I served to allow that guy to protest. And he's not throwing rocks through windows, he's not overturning cars, he's not blowing up buildings. He is very quietly protesting, and I served my country to allow for that, and not just for people that I agree with. So other people that served the military come at it from a completely different, and I think self-serving, aspect. I’m looking at it from a much bigger picture.
A lot of millennials can’t stand Hillary, but they don’t understand what she’s been through. One of my millennial friends, she posted that Humans of New York thing with Clinton recently on Facebook, the one where she talks about how she was treated when she was taking her admissions test for Harvard. And one of my millennial friends said, wow, she should post more things like that, it would help her get elected. And I said, 'Well, those of us who are old enough to remember have seen this happen.
All these years in the military, and all those years as a contractor working in the military, I was treated differently all the time. It’s important for me to see a female commander-in-chief. She’s extremely qualified, and during her term as a senator she spent a lot of time talking to the troops. We’re still in the point where it’s a big deal when a woman is a four-star general. And one day we will have a women as a joint chairman, the joint chief of staff, too.
Grace E. McMillan, 82
Spring Hill, Florida
Technical Sergeant: Air Force, 1955-1964
I was in the Navy reserves for a few months before enlisting in active Air Force on April 5, 1955. I served nine years before my honorable discharge on January 13, 1964, probably before you were born. I was an administrative type; had my seven level and was an Admin Supervisor. After discharge, I joined the Air Force reserves and was promoted to Technical Sergeant.
I’m a registered Republican, but that’s only because I’ve been too lazy to change my affiliation. This year I’m so angry with the Republicans I’m going to do something I’ve never done, I’m going to vote a straight Democratic ticket. I think I’ve paid enough damn income tax to be treated just as well as anybody. The Republicans, they don’t have any respect for women, none at all.
Of course when I served we weren’t allowed to do the wonderful, brave things women do now, but it was a hard row to hoe. I went in in April, I finished basic training in June, I got sent to a tech school in July, and in August I had my first sexual harassment problem. I had a friend who had to get surgery, later, when she was raped by a married cadet.
When I was in the service, during the Vietnam period, on active duty, I was a hawk. I bought into all that business, that we were saviors, we were going to help these people. When I got out of the military, I began to see how different all that looks in real life. I grew up in Dayton, Ohio. I was sheltered, young, I didn’t know diddly-squat.
Trump’s insulted all of us. When he said going to military school was like being in the military, it made me say a bad word. To hell with it. He wouldn’t last two minutes if they put him in a little room and threw a tear gas canister in there. He probably would have wet his little baby pants.
One of the reasons I voted for Bill Clinton was because of Hillary. She’s so much smarter than he is. When I was in the military, even if you were a chief nurse, you were a colonel; women couldn’t be higher than a lieutenant colonel. She’s like the kid who grew up in the family restaurant who started washing dishes and then finally she was allowed to wait on customers, and then, Whoa! Big promotion: You get to be on the cash register today. I think Hillary has done all those menial tasks and I think she's extremely qualified. I'm really praying that she wins this election.