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Which America Are the Troops Fighting to Defend? No Campaign Slogan Can Answer That

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Candidates laying claim to the military vote through rhetoric and photo-ops are building a fiction that demeans our individual reasons for service.

Among the small group of family and friends attending my graduation and commissioning ceremony in 2005 was a young man named Salvatore Corma. Sal was a friend and teammate -- a freshman on the West Point martial arts team who I helped train during my senior year. I had a chance to see him again three years later when the team travelled for a competition at the Air Force Academy. Stationed at nearby Fort Carson, in preparation then for my second deployment to Iraq, I made my way over to wish Sal and the others luck. Just a few weeks later I was in Baghdad. By the time I'd come home Sal had graduated and deployed to Afghanistan. He was killed there on April 29, 2010.

I had never asked Sal what he was fighting for, or why he felt compelled to risk his life in combat on behalf of the United States. Those decisions are, for many of us, deeply personal affairs that don't lend themselves to quick, simple and catchy summaries. I can offer educated guesses at best. He was an only child with aging parents, so maybe he was thankful for a country that looks after its elderly citizens when they need help. He was also, contrary to my own views, a religious man, and perhaps inspired to service by those beliefs. He was my friend, but I will never truly understand what he died defending.

So every time a politician tries to appropriate his death for political gain with pitches such as, "[insert candidate's platform here] is what our men and women in uniform died fighting for, and we need to honor that," or something else along those lines, my stomach turns. These sweeping statements -- meant to hijack the public reverence that military service members have earned through work and sacrifice -- are inherently untrue, and downright offensive.

The notion that any single candidate represents everything "the troops" are fighting for, or that "the troops" even exist as a single entity, all fighting for the same reasons, all sharing the same vision for America, and all willing you, from overseas or from beyond the grave, to vote for Mitt Romney, or Barack Obama, or Rick Santorum, is simply false. Moreover, the fiction of cookie-cutter military support for one party or the other is degrading to those who deserve, perhaps more than anyone, a voice that is recognized as individual and meaningful.

My own soldiers certainly conformed to no such mold. During the 2008 elections, which we watched from Iraq, I recall the variety of opinions. Some favored John McCain, whose character and military service inspired intense loyalty. One particular logistician from Alaska beamed with pride at his governor's selection as a vice-presidential candidate. Others sat glued to television sets in the dining facility, barely holding back tears as they watched our current commander-in-chief take his oath of office.

Still, I fear that candidates will persist in their efforts to turn my friend's death into their own political victory. As the 2012 presidential campaigns develop, both sides will wrap themselves comfortably in the American flag, and fight to lay claim to our collective military voice.

To pre-empt that, here is the simplest explanation I can offer of who we are and what we want.

We are immigrants, thankful for the opportunities we have found here, and we put on the uniform to defend our borders against unlawful entry. We protect life in all its forms, and we defend the right to individual choice. We have strong family values, steeped in tradition, that inspire us to defend the institution of marriage, and we have strong social values that respect the right to privacy, equality and dignity. We represent every state in the nation; every race, religion and creed. We vote Republican, and Democrat, and Independent.

We are, in short, when it comes to political views, not a "we" at all.

If I pretend to speak on behalf of all my fellow troops and veterans, it is only to assert that no one can actually lay claim to that authority. If I can make any broad claim with certainty, it is that my departed friends were not dying for the honor of a cameo appearance in the latest campaign commercial. For their service, they deserve at least the dignity of not being used as campaign fodder by candidates or causes they may not in fact have supported.

So to those voters who want to support the troops: Don't be fooled by the candidate who wears the biggest yellow ribbon and takes the most photographs with soldiers. Have a conversation with a soldier or veteran. Make your own informed decision.

And to all you president-elect and re-elect hopefuls out there: If you want to garner votes by wrapping your message in the American flag, then do what you must. But, please, don't use the one that was draped around Sal's coffin. That one doesn't belong to you.

Alejandro Alves is a master of public policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. A graduate of West Point, he served 24 months in Iraq as an Armored Cavalry officer, and is currently a Captain in the Massachusetts National Guard.

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