News: Bobcat soldiers stalk the vote on Election Day
Commentary by 1st Lt. Tony Formica
1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment
FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - The Bobcats were out in the Donnelly Training Area near Fort Greely Nov. 6 conducting their squad live-fire and Total Stryker Qualification exercises, but they nevertheless succeeded in getting 68 of their own to the polling station in nearby Delta Junction to cast their votes.
Command Sgt. Maj. Richard Speedie of the 1-5th, admits that the situation was not ideal.
“We had a pretty vigorous voting assistance program before we went to the field for both Alaskan and out-of-state voters,” Speedie says. “We really pushed for guys to apply for their home state ballots, send in an absentee ballot, or, if they were Alaskan voters, to go vote early.”
Speedie says that when soldiers are training in the field, “training needs to be the No. 1 priority.”
Nevertheless, there were a handful of Bobcat Alaskan voters who had not been able to get to their local polling station to vote early, and several out-of-state voters had not succeeded in receiving their ballots prior to Election Day. As a result, the battalion adapted to the circumstances.
As the battalion’s voting assistance officer, I’d been working with the companies for several weeks on trying to come up with a workable solution for us to ensure the soldiers were both able to exercise their right as citizens to cast a ballot while at the same time getting the training they needed in the field.
What we eventually came up with as a solution was for the companies to have their voting soldiers to cycle through the battalion headquarters at DTA and get on board our government shuttle van to make the 10-minute drive to the polling station in nearby Delta Junction. Our original projection showed that there were only about 12 soldiers from across the battalion planning on voting anyway, so this course of action seemed feasible. We figured we’d only need to make a single trip to the polling station and back.
That initial estimate changed immediately from the start of the shuttle operation. Several of my peers and I tried to stir up interest in the elections by drawing an electoral map of the United States on a dry-erase board in the battalion tactical operations center, with the intent of coloring it in as we got updates from yet more officers back at Fort Wainwright as to how the elections were progressing. I also actively advertised for the command teams to push their soldiers to vote. By the time the first shuttle was ready to leave at 1 p.m. - six hours after the polls had opened. The original 12 had grown to 15.
We were absolutely adamant about ensuring that we didn’t create the perception of voter interference while at the same time trying to increase our own voter turnout. All of the soldiers who went to vote were briefed that they would not talk to civilians at the polling station about who they were going to vote for, just to avoid any possibility of creating a government endorsement of a particular candidate or party. Additionally, while we urged the soldiers to wear their voting stickers to show off to their peers, we also made sure that superiors did not push for their subordinates to go and vote a particular way.
By the time the shuttle service returned at 2:30 p.m., there were an additional 21 soldiers standing in the TOC hoping to catch another ride to the polling station. It was just incredible. We were coloring in the electoral map at that point and it was generating a lot more interest than we had ever thought it would when we first drew it up. Soldiers were crowded around the map and it was as though they all of a sudden had a sense of how real the election actually was. Before long, they had started talking to their peers about it and before you knew it, a group of five soldiers had turned into 10 or 15.
The Bobcats ultimately wound up making a total of four trips to the polling station, and on two of the trips we had to augment our convoy with a couple of additional vehicles. On the very last run to the polls at 7:30 p.m., half an hour before they closed, we had to drive a medical ambulance in addition to the van because we had so many people trying to vote.
Of the 68 Bobcats who cast a ballot, 30 of them voted for the first time in their lives.
Staff Sgt. Aaron Epstein of Orlando, Fla., was one of those first-time voters.
“I hadn’t previously voted because I honestly didn’t care too much,” he admits. “But now that I’ve been in the military for six years and having deployed twice in those six years, I felt like it was something I should do this time.”
Epstein says that he plans on voting again in the future and that he would encourage his subordinates to do the same.
“It’s something we fight to protect,” he says about the right to vote,” Epstein says. “I figure it’s something we should therefore take advantage of.”
Sgt. 1st Class Jason Barrett, a platoon sergeant in the Bobcats’ Bulldog Company from Dover, Del., similarly thinks it’s important that soldiers exercise their voting right.
“Leaders have a responsibility to encourage their soldiers to vote,” he says. “But that’s not enough — it’s also important that educated soldiers vote. You have to walk that fine line between pushing your soldiers to watch the news and educate themselves and creating the perception that you’re pushing them toward a particular party or platform, but you should definitely try to get them to create that interest in voting.”
Barrett was one of the Bobcats who voted Nov. 6 - it was the first time in his life that he hasn’t had to vote absentee.
Spc. Wesley Pierce, a team leader in Bulldog Company, is one of those soldiers who’s had an interest in voting as long as he’s been able to cast a ballot.
“I’ve been registered since I was 18, and I’ve voted every time I could” he says.
Pierce said he saw the entire Bobcat effort to get him to the polling station as more than just the battalion helping soldiers.
“I was able to leave training in the middle of Alaska, drive to a polling place, register as an Alaskan voter, and actually vote,” he says. “So anyone who says that they can’t or won’t vote just has no excuse as far as I’m concerned.”