General Robert (Abe) Abrams (Retired 4 Star, U.S. Army)

Voting. Enshrined in our US Constitution and one of the most important components of our democracy. In my view, voting is the ultimate expression of an American’s citizen’s constitutional right to provide input to the electorate. To vote is to have your voice heard “on the record” for who will govern.

I spent over 39 years serving our country as an officer in the US Army. As a young 17 year old New Cadet on “R-day” (report in day), I stood on the iconic Plain at West Point in the late afternoon along with 1500 or so of my classmates and I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United Sates of America against all enemies foreign and domestic and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same. I took that obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and swore that I would well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office I was about to enter. At that exact moment, the seriousness of what I was swearing to really hit home…it was emotional for me. I reaffirmed that oath when I was commissioned 4 years later and on the occasion of every promotion thereafter. It was a good reminder of what my service was all about, and what it meant for our country. During my career I had the honor to officiate at many promotion ceremonies. After the new rank was pinned on, I asked the newly promoted officer to grab hold of the American flag with his or her left hand, raise their right hand and I led them in reaffirming their oath. To the officer, every single one got a little choked up and tear formed in their eye. That is how important that oath is to us.

During my service I was stationed in many locations across the entire United States. From Fort Stewart, Georgia which is near the east coast to Fort Irwin, California which is in the high Mojave Desert…to Washington DC to Fort Hood and Fort Bliss Texas and up to Colorado Springs and over to Fort Leavenworth outside Kansas City. My service took me overseas for 3 different tours (twice to Germany and one near 3 year tour in Korea), and 3 long combat tours to southwest Asia. 26 moves in 39 years of service. My service and number of moves is typical of my generation and the soldiers that have followed. It is just one of the things we sacrifice as part of our service.

Now imagine trying to exercise your right to vote when you are moving that frequently, including overseas and to combat. I changed my state residency at the in hopes that it would make participation easier. It did not. Even with submitting change of address cards with the appropriate state authority, there were always challenges with getting notified of upcoming elections. Some states require absentee ballots to be faxed back to the state. Fax? We did not have access to a fax machine (or a phone for that matter) when I was deployed to the austere Saudi Arabian Desert in September 1990 as part of Operation Desert Storm. Mail took about 3 weeks to reach us and our mail took over 30 days to get back to the States. It was not much better in 2003-2004 when I was deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, or 2012-2013 in Kandahar Afghanistan. While we had cell phone access in some areas, fax machines were non-existent and mail still took 3-4 weeks in each direction. For units and soldiers on 9 month rotations to the Korean Peninsula and to Europe today, they face the exact same challenges to exercise their constitutional right to vote. The physical act of voting for service members is just plain hard. 

When I was a Brigade Combat Team Commander in east Baghdad Iraq 2004-2005, my unit had responsibility for Sadr City and 9-Nissan Districts. This was the home for ~3 million of Iraq’s most disenfranchised, the Shiite Iraqi’s. Under Saddam Hussein’s 35 year reign, the Iraq government did nothing to support essential services and infrastructure for this area. As a result, when we arrived in March 2004 there was no potable water system, raw sewage ran thru the streets due to broken pipes and failed pump stations, trash was piled up everywhere and the citizens got about 4 hours of electricity every 24 hours. During our preparation we were told our mission was to conduct stability operations and help improve essential services with a goal of creating conditions for Iraq to conduct their first ever democratic election in January 2005. Unfortunately a raging insurgency erupted just as we arrived. We ended up doing a lot of fighting to restore security to begin rebuilding the infrastructure for essential services and ultimately enable the conduct of elections. In that 12 month deployment, our BCT had 35 soldiers killed in action and 455 purple hearts were awarded for wounds received in combat.

After months of constant fighting, we convinced the insurgency to turn in their weapons and roadside bombs and security was established in our area to enable us to start rebuilding infrastructure. On 30 January 2005 Iraq conducted their first free and democratic election in over 30 years. We had spent weeks preparing our support plan alongside the fledgling Iraqi security forces in our area. The US Military role was to guarantee security to enable the Iraqi election commission to conduct the actual voting. On that day no Iraqi citizen was allowed to operate their vehicles for security reasons (VBIED threat) so the streets were filled with citizens walking to the polling places. People were calm and the atmosphere was festive. Iraqi men and women patiently stood in line. The system was rudimentary—to ensure there was only one vote per person, each citizen put purple ink on their index finger and marked the block on the ballot signifying their choice. Once complete, Iraqi voters came out the other side of the polling station…with the biggest smiles on their faces and proudly waving their purple stained index finger signifying they had voted. Many Iraqi’s spontaneously hugged the Iraqi security forces providing close in security and in some cases hugged our American soldiers in the outer ring of security and thanked them for providing the security necessary to be able to conduct the election. It was surreal. Many of our soldiers commented that seeing the Iraqis joy in participating in their first free and democratic election helped them better understand the sacrifices of our year long deployment. With the loss of every soldier and the wounds received that would change soldiers lives forever, our mantra had become “make it matter”. Make the sacrifices matter for something good. For me, I knew that in some small way that day, we had made it matter. I also knew I would never again take for granted our constitutional right to vote.

I retired from active duty on 1 September 2021. On 8 November 2022 I was able to vote in person at my local polling center. It was the first time I was able to vote in person since I became eligible to vote. I was grateful. As I exited the polling center, I thought about the 300,000 plus service members forward stationed or deployed around the world along with their family members, and the hundreds of thousands more not stationed in their home state and wondered if they had been able to vote. That is why I am supporting Democracy Live. In this day and age we should be pursuing ways to make it easier for service members and their families and other disenfranchised voters to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Every single one of them raised their hand and swore an oath to protect this country, and support and defend the Constitution. We owe it to them to give them the same opportunity to vote just like every other eligible US citizen.