I have had many sleepless nights in the last months. This election season has brought out the polarization of America to the full. Recent polls show that 71 percent of Americans are concerned about the widespread post-election violence. At the same time, 91 percent say it is important to live in a country that is democratically governed, and 88 percent believe that voting is a way to improve the country.
However, my confidence in my country and my fellow citizens does not waver. After all, we are a people united in our love for the country. Moreover, we have held free and fair elections for almost 250 years, through civil war, pandemics, two world wars and many other challenges. I know my local election workers and have seen their tireless work in filling polling stations and counting each ballot properly. I would trust them with my life. I also trust them with our democracy. I hope we have the collective patience that is needed at this moment.
The most memorable election of my life was December 15, 2005. It was not an American election, but rather the parliamentary election in Iraq. I was there on my fourth of five missions, and we worked to ensure that the elections were free and fair. People around the world remember this election because of the purple fingers – Iraqi citizens proudly showed their ink stained fingers as proof that they had voted.
I remember feeling two contradictory emotions. The first was the enormous pride and joy of watching so many people vote for the first time in their lives after suffering under the dictatorial rule of Saddam Hussein. And the second was the anxiety – that there would be violence, that the calls for fraud would overwhelm what we hoped for a free and fair trial, and that Iraqi citizens would not have the patience to wait for all the votes to be counted.
A week after the election, Sunni and Shiite factions howled that the electoral fraud was rampant and demonstrations broke out by up to 20,000 people. Soon after, violence erupted with car bombs and attacks on US and Iraqi officials. The full results were not released until more than five weeks after election day, but the results remained, and the elected parliament served for four years.
I remember how happy I was to be an American, and how proud I was to live in a country where I could send my ballot in absentia (which I had done every time since I joined the military in 1989) without worrying if it would be counted or without fear of violence after the election. I knew the district clerk in my hometown personally. She always asked where I was stationed or deployed when I called. She had a personal interest in ensuring that I received my absenteeism request and the subsequent ballot in time.
I see the tragic irony in the fact that after the elections in my own country, I have the same concerns about the aftermath of the elections in my own country as I did almost fifteen years ago about the elections in Iraq. I think of many of my comrades who still wear the cloth of our nation and have cast their ballots from far away places – Afghanistan, at sea in the Pacific Ocean, or in other far-flung places. Their ballots must also be counted, and I am quite willing to wait a few more days if necessary.
I am also more determined than ever to play my part in creating a more perfect Union. That is why I have joined forces with the Veterans and Citizens’ Initiative, a non-partisan group of veterans, military families and organizations that support veterans and families, to do our part in repairing the damage of polarization and working to overcome these divisions.
If there is any lesson to be learned from these past months, it is that love for our country is hard work. It is our duty today to underpin the hard-won trust in our elections and not take it for granted. It is our duty to avoid any suggestion of violence and to work towards healing after a difficult and hard-fought election. In the end, we must know without a doubt that we are blessed, that we all owe something to our country and our fellow citizens, and that if we want to be this shining city on a hill, each of us must make sacrifices for this ideal. America will only be there