December 22, 2007 – Look anywhere in Killeen, home to the sprawling Fort Hood army base, and there are patriotic signs like the giant banner that greets shoppers entering the local Wal-Mart: “Fort Hood Texas, Home of America’s Hammer!”
But beneath the bravado and bluster you find a more volatile mix of emotions – frustration, anxiety and anger – among military families after five years of war in Iraq.
As the presidential primaries get under way, disenchantment with the war here and elsewhere is having repercussions: A bloc of voters that has traditionally supported the Republican Party appears to be up for grabs.
“I’m definitely listening to who is saying what,” Belinda Larmore said as she sat in the Killeen Mall food court for lunch with her husband, Mike, an Army captain just back from a rotation in Iraq.
Ms. Larmore, 36, a mother of three, ages 5 to 19, grew up in a Republican family and has usually voted that way.
But in the 2008 national election, she is looking over the field carefully for a candidate – Democrat or Republican – who grasps the complex challenges facing a military stretched to the limit, fighting a war “with no end in sight.”
She wants to hear candidates address the issues directly affecting the military, such as multiple combat tours and rotations extended beyond the usual 12 months.
“Show me any politician who would be away from his family that long,” Ms. Larmore said as her husband sat silently across from her. Capt. Larmore declined to be interviewed but said he generally supported his wife’s views.
Ms. Larmore isn’t ready to support a quick exit from the war. “A lot of people are saying, ‘Let’s get out.’ But no one is coming up with a solution so that we can leave safely without leaving the people of Iraq high and dry.”
‘Military moms’ key
“Military moms” like Ms. Larmore and other women with relatives in the military are the swing vote in the nation’s first presidential primary in New Hampshire Jan. 8, said Jennifer Donahue, a senior political analyst with the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm University.
“They’re undecided and ambivalent. They have feelings of patriotism and wanting the war to be completed. But they’re getting reports home that the troops are very frustrated,” Ms. Donahue said.
“This bloc is very unsure as to what the right thing is for the troops. The question they face is whether to vote to limit [the war] or vote to let it play out.”
As a voting bloc, active-duty reservists and National Guard members number 2.6 million. About half are married – bringing the number of potential voters in this camp to nearly 4 million.
Now vs. then
A recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll showed that a majority of military families disapproved of President Bush and his handling of the war in Iraq. That contrasts with polls and surveys taken before the 2004 presidential election, including one by Gallup, which found that veterans overwhelmingly favored Mr. Bush over his opponent, Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat and a war veteran.
The current Times/Bloomberg poll also found that nearly 70 percent of military households with a veteran of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan said that troops in Iraq should either come home right away or within the next year.
That’s how Maija Rojas feels.
A former Marine with a husband on his second tour in Iraq, Ms. Rojas, 25, says she’ll vote for the candidate “who can get them home the fastest.”
Multiple rotations and longer tours have caused problems and “a lot more divorces” among military families, said Ms. Rojas, a mother of two preschoolers.
Sheila Mengel’s husband retired after 23 years in the Army, including one tour in Iraq. If the election were held right now, “I’d vote Democrat because I’d like to see the war end,” she said.
Ms. Mengel said that Iraq is in a civil war, and that U.S. troops have no business providing security over there. “If the Iraqis want to kill each other, they should handle it themselves.”
Others remained supportive of Mr. Bush and his strategy in Iraq.
Sarah Martin, another military spouse, said she wants to “see it through” in Iraq. “I definitely will vote Republican.”
Vera Kingsley, a former Marine who served in Iraq in 2004, said the United States can’t “leave a country in shambles. The reason we’re there is to help them get back on their feet.”
Possible signs of shift
Which candidate is best situated to capture the military vote?
If you follow the money, campaign contributions to Democrats have risen sharply since the start of the Iraq war in 2003.
The Democrats’ share of military contributions has increased from 23 percent during the 2002 election to 40 percent so far this year, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
The top recipients in the presidential race – Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Ron Paul – are both anti-war candidates.
Among Republican candidates for president, only Mr. Paul, a Texas congressman, opposes the war. Of the top three Democratic candidates, Mr. Obama and John Edwards would pull combat troops out of Iraq within 12 months. Hillary Rodham Clinton would withdraw troops but has no set timeline for a full pullout.
A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, released Dec. 4, found that in the key Republican primary state of South Carolina, military veterans and their spouses do not differ much in vote choice from those with no military experience.Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war John McCain actually did slightly better among nonveterans than veterans.
Ms. Donahue, the political analyst in New Hampshire, said that no candidate has clearly emerged as the favorite of veterans and active-duty military in either party.
“There are clearly signs of discontent. But does that shift voting patterns?” said James Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
Signs of discontent are showing up on Internet blogs and with organizations such as VoteVets .org, which supports veterans running for office, and Veterans Against the Iraq War, which has sponsored anti-war demonstrations around the country.
Texas-based Military Spouses for Change was started in May by Carissa Picard, the wife of a Black Hawk pilot based at Fort Hood.
Military spouses tend to shy away from politics, Ms. Picard said. Her group wants to change that by educating voters and highlighting related causes such as wounded-warrior legislation and veterans benefits.
Ms. Picard, who was a practicing lawyer before deciding to stay home with her two young children, said the Iraq war was the impetus for starting Military Spouses for Change.
“What I wanted to do was provide for our spouses a place to go to look at each candidate’s plans for Iraq,” she said.
The group, which started with eight spouses at Fort Hood, now has 200 members scattered across the country and elsewhere.
The group isn’t endorsing any candidate. But in her conversations in the military community, Ms. Picard has found that frustration with the war has created an opening for Democrats.
“A lot of people I’ve been talking to in the active-duty and veteran community, who have traditionally voted Republican, are considering Democratic candidates because they’re very frustrated with the war in Iraq.”
Clint Douglas, a former staff sergeant who fought in Afghanistan, said he identifies as a Democrat and sees an opportunity for the party to pick up disenchanted military voters.
“So many military people, families, dependents are sick of this presidency and the wars,” he said.
But he thinks the Democrats’ perceived weakness on defense issues continues to hurt them among this bloc of voters.
“Why can’t Democrats do defense?” said Mr. Douglas, who lives in Chicago and is writing a book about his wartime experience.
University of Texas professor John Sibley Butler, a Vietnam veteran, agrees that Democrats aren’t as hawkish on defense issues as Republicans, although he is disappointed that few politicians in either party have military experience.
Perhaps no one knows the predicament facing military families better than Leslae Stewart, who lives in Killeen.
A soldier for eight years before leaving in 2003, Ms. Stewart said her son is getting ready to enlist in the Army and may soon be heading to Iraq.
“I’m tired of this war – enough is enough,” she said. But she also supports her son. “It’s what he wants to do.”
LEADING CANDIDATES’ VIEWS ON IRAQ
Hillary Rodham Clinton: Favors starting a troop withdrawal but leaving some to fight terrorists, train Iraqi forces and protect U.S. interests. Wants to increase regional diplomacy. Has set no timeline for a full withdrawal.
John Edwards: Favors withdrawing 40,000 to 50,000 combat troops immediately, and all within 10 months of taking office. Would prohibit permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq and keep quick-reaction forces outside Iraq.
Barack Obama: Vows to end the war. Would withdraw combat troops by the end of 2008 but leave some troops to protect the U.S. Embassy and attack specific targets.
Rudy Giuliani: Supports President Bush’s troop surge. Says U.S. forces must remain until Iraq is stable. Calls for expanding the U.S. Army by at least 10 combat brigades, or 35,000 soldiers.
Mike Huckabee: Opposes withdrawal timetables. Says he’s “focused on winning.” Backs a regional summit.
John McCain: Supports the troop surge. Wants troops to stay until Iraq’s government is stable and secure.
Mitt Romney: Would bring U.S. troops home as soon as possible, but not in a precipitous way that might require them to go back.
Fred Thompson: Wants to maintain the U.S. mission in Iraq as central to the war against Islamic terrorism; would greatly expand the military.
SOURCES: The Associated Press; McClatchy-Tribune