Twelve years ago, during another presidential election, I found myself in a “flyover” state watching CNN while waiting to get my oil changed. An older customer muttered at the television, clearly unhappy with his ballot choices.
After some colorful language, he seemed startled to realize I was there. “You from the Air Force base?” he asked. I nodded, completely unprepared for his next question. “What does your husband think about this nonsense?”
I considered telling him, “He usually asks me what I think since I worked in the White House as a Deputy Communications Director to the First Lady until just last month.” Instead, I offered an evasive answer about how our military members don’t discuss politics, choosing the quickest exit from an impossible conversation.
As a third-generation military spouse, I deeply appreciate the apolitical posture of our military men and women who prioritize service to country above personal preference and prejudice. Like most Americans, our service members hold strong opinions on the issues confronting our country. But unlike their civilian neighbors, they rarely step into partisan matters—even after retiring from active duty.
Whenever asked why he chose to avoid pointed political discussions, my husband often explained, “What I do every day guarantees your right to speak freely.” Occasionally the persistent questioner would double-down, “But do you agree…”
Patiently, he’d smile, explaining, “Whether I agree or not doesn’t change my job.” In the flurry to coax senior military officials to provide endorsements in today’s heated election, we miss the great service they provide our democracy. These leaders believe Americans deserve to trust their military—not question their allegiance.
Trust in our nation’s government is dangerously low. Americans need to know our military leaders respect their commissioning oath: “I … do solemnly swear I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter.”
When social media offers everyone a megaphone, it’s refreshing to know there are still men and women of character willing to put service before self and refrain from politicking.
But their silence should not be mistaken for approval. Our military doesn’t need imagination to recognize toxic leadership—too many have experienced the consequences in their work centers, and they are trained to do their job in spite of it. Those entrusted with command understand what is acceptable, or grounds for removal. Our military trains regularly to ensure their readiness to respond to dangerous threats worldwide. They prepare operational plans for any eventuality, not because they love war, but because they appreciate the cost of peace. More than most Americans, our service members understand service requires sacrifice. They’re willing to give their lives to preserve freedom and democracy, liberty and justice for all.
Their example should remind all of us what’s at stake in this election, and its aftermath. I am heartbroken by the spectacle our allies and enemies watch unfolding in our nation, but I know our military service members represent the best of America. Their example restores my faith daily.
Underneath their uniforms, they are as diverse as the nation they serve. Men and women from all walks of life, every faith and no faith, affluent and impoverished families, urban, suburban, and rural communities. They prove we can disagree and work together for the common good—a feat more politicians should attempt.
Our military will vote—many by absentee ballots, as they’ve done since World War II. Then, on January 20th, 2021, they will salute their Commander-in-Chief, and continue to do their jobs faithfully.
Their service inspires me: Does my life demonstrate that kind of selflessness? Their silence encourages me: Do I live with such conviction that my actions speak louder than my words? Their stewardship of our democracy reminds me of my own responsibilities: Will my vote ensure the man receiving their salute on January 20, 2021, respects their service and sacrifice?
The character of our democracy is not solely dependent upon the leaders we choose to govern—it is evident in the citizens who choose to participate. May we make choices worthy of those who sacrifice for all of us, even when they don’t agree with us.
A former Texas resident, Katye Riselli is a third-generation Air Force spouse. She has served as speechwriter for Mrs. Laura Bush.
Photo: Lennart Preiss/Getty Images