By Dan Treul
Al Cannistraro, Jacqueline Cotrell, Christine Escobar, Kim Farris, Mike Germain, Kerri Glover, Matthew Moll, Gale Walden, Ellen Emerson White, and Randy Wilkinson contributed to this story.
Following the overwhelming response by members of the military - current and former - and civilians across the country to the recent investigation by OffTheBus of Iowa veterans' outlook heading into Thursday's caucuses, we decided to publish a follow-up. This "sequel" draws upon further material from the original interviews, as well as recent interviews conducted in the past two days. To read the original story - "Iowa Veterans Want U.S. Out of Iraq, Turn Toward Democrats" - click here.
Iowa veterans stand on the eve of their state's caucuses frustrated, uncertain, and undeniably hungering for change. Indeed, the Democratic candidates seem to have drawn much of their support from the state's military population in the same way that President Bush sold "regime-change" to the nation in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
As reported Tuesday by OffTheBus, partisan and candidate preferences notwithstanding, these veterans - and even active duty personnel - are not happy with the current direction of the country they proudly served. In a recent interview with 21-year old Ryan O'Leary - a National Guardsman from Carroll, Iowa, injured while serving in Iraq - the self-described Huckabee-supporter was asked if he thought there was consensus among Iowa veterans regarding Middle East and United States policy.
"Yeah, that it sucks," O'Leary said. The Iowa soldier added that he believes veterans to be more interested in the presidential campaign this year, however he said that "there really isn't a general consensus or agreement on what to do." He said most of the talk he's heard revolves around the mainstream candidates, but that veterans' patience may be wearing thin.
"The political ads make me sick," O'Leary said, "and honestly, Obama and Clinton, I believe, blow a lot of smoke up everyone's asses."
Perhaps not as candid as O'Leary, other Iowa veterans are coming forward expressing their frustration. Like many of the veterans interviewed in the previous piece, a 22-year-old National Guardsman in Fort Dodge, Iowa - who declined to be named - says that "ending the war in Iraq safely for both our people and the entire Middle East" is a top - if not the top - priority for veterans and current members of the Iowa military alike. Though the guardsman was certainly more restrained in the manner by which the U.S. brings the troops home, his sentiment was echoed - to varying degrees - by nearly every soldier interviewed.
For the men and women who fought in Vietnam, Korea, and now Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a decisively anti-war undercurrent just now beginning to crest at the surface. Diplomacy, it seems, is taking a front-seat to the trademark preemptive interventionism of the Bush presidency.
Even the guardsman from Fort Dodge - who says if it weren't for a training exercise-related injury he'd be "over in Iraq helping the fight" - remarked that he desires a president who will adopt "open communication with leaders of foreign countries. Particularly," he said, "the Middle Eastern countries."
"I've never seen so much interest before from veterans and active military members," he said. Many, he says, are throwing their support behind Obama.
Yet while the Democratic candidates seem to be benefiting the most from the present discontent, there are, as always, exceptions to the rule.
While the vast majority of the veterans and soldiers interviewed named ending the war in Iraq and reevaluating the United States' involvement in the Middle East as priorities, there exists a great diversity of opinion over how such changes should be manifested.
"I would like to see other nations view us in a more positive light," said a staff sergeant from Polk City, Iowa. "That being said, I don't care how he [the next president] approaches the Iraq situation as long as we stay to finish the job. This isn't going to be resolved quickly," he said. "We need to be patient and see this thing through."
The staff sergeant - a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom - said that with the exception of Hillary Clinton (who he says is "far from popular with the troops"), he's unsure what will happen when the dust of the Iowa caucuses settles. "Guys like Obama and McCain have people's interest right now," he said.
"I wish there was an easy answer here," a 37-year-old retired Army and Air Force veteran from Cedar Rapids told OffTheBus. "Obviously if there was one we would have found it. I'm looking for someone with fresh ideas and strong leadership, someone who can seek out a new plan."
Highlighting the non-traditional nature of the military vote in this equally non-traditional presidential campaign are the four priorities for the United States' next president listed by the Cedar Rapids veteran. "Iraq, terrorism, health care, and the environment," he said. "In that order." Equally telling are the two candidates he says he'll more than likely choose between: John Edwards and John McCain - hardly political twins, especially in terms of the messages they've brought to Iowa.
"There needs to be some serious strength with the nations that support and protect terrorism," said the veteran from Cedar Rapids, "however we need to work harder to keep our allies close."
Seemingly mirroring the latest polling which, at the very least, suggests that Hillary Clinton is losing - or has already lost - her advantage in historically Clinton-averse Iowa, the Cedar Rapids veteran says "I have nothing positive to say about Hillary, and I don't know anybody who does either. Shy of that," he says, "there is a lot of division."
"Service members in Iowa are a microcosm of Iowa society, and reflect that," said Lt. Col. Greg Hapgood, public affairs officer at Camp Dodge. Though Hapgood understandably declined to mention specific candidates, he was emphatic in his assertion that interest in the campaign is on the rise.
"There seems to be tremendous interest in the caucus process itself," he said, "and increased interest overall." Hapgood pointed out that deployed soldiers cannot vote in the Iowa caucuses, as "the mechanism for doing so doesn't exist." The parties, he said, "need to catch up and change the process." Despite the unfairness of such a system, he said, "Family members will work to get their loved ones' stories out."
The stories will get out. And we will hear them tonight.