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The 21st Century Soldier: Supports Gay Rights, Clean Energy and Is Often Progressive

VoteVets is making waves educating the public about a very different kind of soldier.
 
 
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There are two ads out on national cable networks these days that you may have seen.

One depicts a U.S. military truck exploding as it winds its way down a dirt road, presumably somewhere in Iraq or Afghanistan. The cause? An explosively formed projectile, hailing from Iran and specially designed to destroy American military vehicles, we're told. The image of the always-creepy Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flashes on the screen and the word "enemies" is oft-repeated.

The second ad also invokes Iran as America's foe, while a narrator tells us that nation makes $100 million every day "selling oil around the world and peddling hate."

Sounds like visceral kindling designed for the right-wing propaganda machine, doesn't it? Not quite. Fox News rejected these ads, calling them too confusing. Yet there is nothing perplexing about the ads -- in fact, they are very clear, and much easier to follow than Glenn Beck's conspiratorial chicken-scratch.

The ads' messages are anchored around clean energy legislation, currently being debated in Congress. A very precise line is drawn, connecting America's oil addiction to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and related national security problems. As soon as the doom and gloom images evoking the "war on terror" subside, the clouds part to reveal landscapes of wind turbines spinning against blue skies. Passing the clean energy bill, the ads say, will cut our oil dependence in half and cut oil profits for "hostile nations" like Iran.

Both ads are the brainchild of VoteVets.org, a pro-military organization founded by young vets of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and which seeks to be the voice of what it calls the "21st-century soldier." Its action fund is focused on educating the public on military issues, the wars, and holding politicians accountable, while its political action committee seeks to bolster the campaigns of politicians -- especially veterans of the ongoing Persian Gulf wars -- who will represent today's service-members and veterans.

Founded in 2006, the organization has grown to count 100,000 people from all 50 states as members. Its sizable coffers -- $2 million have gone into sending those two clean energy ads onto national airwaves alone -- have lent VoteVets.org serious Beltway clout.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about VoteVets.org is how much it differs from other pro-military, pro-veterans groups. Indeed, it spends its money and energy promoting liberal policy issues (and candidates who support them). Its list of legislative priorities includes closing Guantanamo, repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell, and, of course, passing the clean energy bill.

In its role as a center-left organization appealing to -- and being one with -- the pro-military crowd, VoteVets.org is uniquely positioned to appeal to conservatives and moderates who might otherwise turn a deaf ear to progressive issues.

From war to activism

VoteVets.org was founded by two young Iraq war veterans, Jon Soltz and Jeremy Broussard. Both came back disillusioned with the prospects of success in Iraq, and their experiences have informed the organization's position that Iraq was never the right war. (Afghanistan, on the other hand, is the right fight though VoteVets.org disagrees with how both this administration and the prior one have focused on a counter-insurgency strategy as opposed to a counter-terrorist strategy which would require sending fewer troops into combat less often.)

Peter Granato, 31, who served for 14 months in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 and today is VoteVet.org's vice-chairman says, "A lot of people, myself included, were not very politically active prior to Iraq. We didn't really ask a lot of questions. But being in Iraq all the time made me -- made us -- wonder, why are we here?"

He remembers watching the Democratic primary debates from his base in Iraq, as candidates spoke about the need for a change of course in the relatively nascent war. When Granato came back, he met Soltz as they both worked to get John Kerry elected. Granato's first official involvement with VoteVets.org involved starring in the group's very first ad, which targeted politicians for voting against a bill that would have given service-members more expensive but much more effective body armor.

Ever since VoteVets.org's inception, the organization has worked to influence opinion about the war in Iraq, running ads throughout the country featuring Iraq veterans demanding that then-President George W. Bush to stop the escalation in Iraq. It also ran a striking campaign calling on the former president -- and by extension, his supporters -- to choose "country over politics" when it came to Iraq.

Robin Eckstein, 33, an Iraq vet from Appleton, Wis., says she joined VoteVets.org in order to extend her service to her country. "One of the problems since I've been out of the military is to find something as rewarding. Even though I took off my uniform in 2007, I'd like to think my service to the country hasn't ended," she says.

Eckstein appeared in the anti-escalation ad that ran around the 2006 mid-term elections and through VoteVets.org went to D.C. to lobby for the Post-9/11 G.I. bill and to take a media training course. She says VoteVets.org is committed to grooming young veterans for politics, "whether you want to be a candidate or whether you want to speak out on issues that matter to you."

To be sure, VoteVets.org stands out among other veterans organizations not only because it appeals to a liberally minded contingent, but also because it has placed special emphasis on recruiting Iraq and Afghanistan vets. Unlike older institutions like Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, VoteVets.org is promoting the values of today's young veterans -- not yesterday's.

The 21st-century soldier

VoteVets.org officially defines the 21st-century soldier as someone who has served in the armed forces during the war on terror era, when the U.S. military finds itself facing off with nebulous terrorist organizations rather than nation-states. But the evocative term may also be used to describe a new generation of American soldier who can be progressively inclined even as he or she serves in the largest military in the world.

In a military comprised of rural whites, inner-city minorities, immigrant Latinos (including some undocumented, called "green card soldiers"), and everything in between, there's a need among at least a portion of the demographic for a group that represents the more left-leaning among them, says Eckstein. As a VoteVets.org member she does volunteer outreach to young veterans like herself, telling them, "There is an outlet for you and your military service even if you're progressive."

In other words, as a veteran, there's a place for you to be proud of your military service and still call out the military, Congress, and even your former commander-in-chief for unfair and wrong practices that negatively affect service-members, vets and national security.

Just as other veterans groups, VoteVets.org is a big supporter of legislation and policies that will protect service-members and vets. It was a strong voice in support of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which passed in 2008, and provides service-members who served 90 days or more since 9/11 tremendous education benefits. The group also wants to fully fund the VA, extend benefits to all currently ineligible veterans and improve substance abuse counseling and treatment.

But VoteVets.org distinguishes itself by its promotion of issues ordinarily untouched by pro-military groups -- issues you might call 21st-century concerns. Among such priorities, VoteVets.org wants to extend benefits to allow unmarried service-members to allocate their benefits to whomever they choose (including, say, gay partners). It also wants to change the regulations dictating that women cannot be in or around front lines (especially because so many already are), and it wants to make sure the VA will improve health services for women veterans (the VA is so unused to treating women, one female vet said she was consistently called "mister").

The current clean energy campaign is of course another 21st-century priority. Earlier this month, VoteVets.org released a poll showing that 79 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan vets believe ending America's dependence on foreign oil is important to national security -- but they don't think off-shore drilling is the answer, cutting against moves by President Obama and "drill, baby, drill" proclamations by the Sarah Palin cohort. Instead, a VoteVets.org poll shows that 73 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan vets support the clean energy climate legislation in Congress as the solution to this national security (and environmental and economic) problem.

When it comes to Don't Ask Don't Tell, VoteVets.org is also ahead of the game. Its affiliated Vet Voice Foundation, a non-profit that shares the same leadership, released a poll in March showing that 73 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans believe it would be acceptable for gay and lesbian people to openly serve in the military.

Peter Granato, the organization's vice-chairman, says he isn't all that surprised that a decisive majority of new veterans feel that way. "This has become a non-issue," he says. "In the 'coalition of the willing,' every one of those militaries we work with already has an integrated military as far as that goes. If we've been able to serve with them readily, all the arguments against repealing DADT fall flat."

The American public may be more surprised than Granato to hear the military is so open to repealing DADT given that conservative politicians and talking heads often spout talking points about how allowing homosexuals to openly serve in the military would ruin morale and compromise national security.

Pro-ban advocates like Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a right-wing pro-military think-tank, testified to Congress "about roving gangs of lesbians. It's just kind of crazy," says Granato. "There's no real credible arguments -- the vets who sign [pro-DADT] petitions are like 90 years old and have been out of the military for 40 years. The service-members of today and young vets feel very differently."

Joe Sestak, the congressman from Pennsylvania challenging Arlen Specter for his longtime Senate seat in a Democratic primary on Tuesday, was non-partisan during his 31 years in the military. As a vet, he found his voice as an avowed progressive.

"When people are somewhat surprised that the highest ranking vet in Congress is a Democrat, I like to joke that everyone in the military is a Democrat. After all, the military gives you good health care, great educational opportunities and a secure retirement," says Sestak, who is both a member of VoteVets.org and a recipient of the group's money since he first ran for Congress in 2006.

And this is precisely how VoteVets.org's can most make a difference -- by peeling away at the stereotypical image of a Republican-leaning, conservative service-member and representing the interests of a new generation of veterans.

Sending a message to Washington

Being a strong political voice for the 21st-century soldier requires a combination of bottom-up and top-down approaches.

In the 2006 mid-term elections the group's PAC supported all the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans running for Congress, save one -- the lone Republican. In 2008, they supported another group of young vets, including a few who hadn't served in the current wars but had been in service sometime in the past decade. That year, VoteVets.org publicly opposed John McCain's presidential run despite his decorated veteran status, and was vocal about its support for Barack Obama's plan for Iraq.

As campaigns gear up for the November mid-term elections this year, VoteVets.org is supporting another group of all-Democratic candidates running for Congress.

Granato believes it's important to have younger combat veterans in Congress because there are too many "chicken-hawks" making calls on sending troops to war or passing bills that seriously affect the health and safety of military members. Young veterans "know what the sacrifices are. They will think about that as they make these decisions -- whether it's about escalation or funding programs that will help military families," he says.

Aside from supporting like-minded politicians, VoteVets.org also tries to hold those it doesn't agree with accountable for their actions.

During the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill debate, the group ran an ad targeting John McCain and asking why he -- a man who makes a big deal of his military service -- opposed it. It ran an ad accusing General Petraeus, the military commander in Iraq, and President Obama of failing the military in the way they've chosen to proceed in combat. During this election season, VoteVets produced a campaign defending Rep. Sestak from untruthful smears regarding his military career by Sen. Specter's campaign.

Speaking to right-wingers

Conservatives make a big ado about being at the pro-military end of the political spectrum -- VoteVets.org is proof that is not necessarily the case.

The clean energy campaign shows best what the group can achieve in terms of changing minds and making a difference in Washington. The climate change clean energy bill is currently locked in a push-and-shove battle between Democrats and Republicans, with the latter having successfully convinced a not-insignificant number of its voters of some or all of the following -- that climate change is not real, that clean energy isn't going to make a big difference, that it'll be a huge money suck (and will raise taxes!), that it's simply a way for Al Gore and other environmentalists to get rich, and, finally, that clean energy has nothing to do with national security.

This last argument -- national security -- is where VoteVets.org can really speak the language.

Take it from Robin Eckstein: "Being a veteran in Iraq, driving a truck, I got to see first-hand how our energy policy affects our troops. The main things we hauled was fuel and water. And if we couldn't get to these various outposts" -- say, if these truck convoys were blown up as shown in VoteVets.org's ad -- "then they couldn't function, and couldn't complete the mission."

"It's ridiculous that the military has to rely on these slow-moving targets, it doesn't make any sense," she says.

This is the story VoteVets.org seeks to tell. "Everybody knows the environmentalists' arguments for clean energy, but our argument hits a different person. We correlate national security and clean energy, and reach a more conservative or moderate-leaning person," says Granato.

This is not to say the group isn't interested in the merits of the environmental or economic arguments for clean energy legislation -- but it wants to reach the folks who haven't been moved by those rationalizations.

And if it takes some demonizing of Ahmadinejad, graphic explosions of trucks carrying American soldiers, and a we-must-do-this-or-else narrative to drum up support from those who are otherwise reticent to support clean energy legislation, well, so be it.