- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Elizabeth O’Herrin
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted
The first time I was old enough to vote for president, I filled out an absentee ballot in the Middle East. The directions were confusing for a first-time voter, half-heartedly and belatedly passed down by my staff sergeant. I tried to decipher the instructions, printed my information as neatly as possible, and worried that the apostrophe in my last name would render my vote meaningless. I was certain if hotels, airlines, and restaurants lost my reservations that my apostrophe would almost certainly screw up my absentee ballot. I never found out if that vote counted or not.
The second time I voted for president was in Washington, D.C., again by absentee ballot so that my vote would count for something in my home state of Wisconsin. That next January, I headed to the National Mall with thousands of others to watch our nation’s first black president be sworn into office. After encountering anti-U.S. sentiments after my deployments, I was shocked to see so many tiny American flags furiously waving as far as the eye could see. The pride swelling through the sea of onlookers felt palpable.
The third time I voted for president was this weekend. I aimed to beat the rush by voting early, at my local public library, but as I stepped into the fluorescent light from the beautiful fall day I was regretfully oriented to a snaking line: Hundreds of people winding through the stacks of books. Grumbling under my breath, I briefly considered turning back, but decided to bear the wait. I began to read a magazine, but became distracted by the colorful group surrounding me: a diverse group of people, each determined to make our voice heard in our representative government.
People of all ages and skin tones surrounded me, millennials and baby boomers, all waiting for nearly two hours to vote on a glorious fall Sunday. A mixed-race couple took turns entertaining their toddler. A group of women in yoga outfits came over from the studio across the street after class. An elderly mother and her daughter spoke in Spanish. A man wearing a full Canadian tuxedo. Women with blue hair, purple hair, green hair. More Chicago Cubs t-shirts than I could count hunched over voting screens. A tall black man wearing sunglasses and a Kwanzaa shirt quietly and kindly kept the curved line in order.
As I submitted my vote and pulled my voter card from the machine, a man with a mustache and a long ponytail grinned and slapped an “I voted today” bracelet onto my wrist.
Winding my way back through the line, an overwhelming sense of pride and privilege washed over me. Tears pricked my eyes as I thought back to serving in a country where people waited for days to vote with their fingertips dipped in ink, and car bombs exploded to scare people away from elections. I remembered words I had heard spoken by Representative John Lewis earlier this year — a Georgia congressman and civil rights activist who was beaten bloody while fighting for the right to vote in the 1960’s: “The right to vote is precious, nearly sacred, and we must use it.”
Elizabeth O’Herrin, who holds the Air National Guard chair on Best Defense’s Council of the Former Enlisted, is a former AMMO troop for the Wisconsin ANG. She deployed three times in support of OIF and OEF between 2001-2008.
Photo credit: Library of Congress/Flickr