Photos: Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press, captions at the end of the article.
As the ballots from the 2022 midterm elections continue to be counted across the country, North Carolinians are still focused on their top issues. Among those are veterans, who make up over 650,000 people in the state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In the lead-up to the election, the two most important issues for the country as a whole were, by far, inflation and abortion, at 32% and 27%, respectively, according to an exit poll from NBC News. More locally, a late October poll from Marist found that the top three issues for North Carolinians were the economy, abortion and preserving democracy.
The poll found that 38% of those surveyed in North Carolina had inflation, the increased price of goods and services in the economy, as their top issue. Preserving democracy and abortion followed at 22% and 16%, respectively.
Carolina Public Press spoke about the election with multiple veterans at an event held at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6018 in Cumberland County. The county is home to over 42,000 veterans and Fort Bragg, the largest military installation in the United States.
Veterans said that they were concerned with the same issues that were on the minds of voters going into the midterm election — abortion rights, the economy and threats to democracy. They also expressed a general sentiment of not being heard and their opinions not counting.
Much like an increasing number of Americans, veterans at the post were also frustrated with both political parties and their lack of will in addressing these issues.
According to an August poll from the Pew Research Center, 27% of Americans view both the Democratic and Republican parties negatively. That’s an increase from the 16% polled in the late 2000s. In 1994, it was 6%.
“Sometimes I feel like we’re being used as pawns,” said Edward Beard, commander at VFW post. “One side is for, the other side is against it, but we’re in the middle. … We go out and defend the constitution of the United States, but when it gets to health care and things like that, they kind of hold us hostage.”
“Even though we’re veterans, we’re people too,” he said.
Much like an increasing part of the general population, these veterans want more focus on the issues that affect most Americans instead of partisan politics. Their opinions have been set out by issue area: abortion, threats to democracy, health care, the economy and inflation, as well as their perceived role as voters.
Dobbs v. Jackson is the U.S. Supreme Court decision from this past summer that resulted in the rescinding of the guaranteed right to an abortion found in the 1973 court decision Roe v. Wade.
Veterans at the VFW post in Fayetteville said that this is the wrong direction for the country.
“As far as women’s rights, they should be able to do what they want with their bodies,” said Army veteran Thomas Person, 61, of Fayetteville.
Army veteran LaFaith Artis, 61, from Goldsboro said that he’s concerned about women who could be forced into pregnancy who can’t afford childcare.
“Childcare is too expensive. Some can’t afford childcare, and they need it so they can make a living and do for their family,” Artis said.
Threats to democracy
According to the Marist poll in North Carolina, 22% of voters heading into the 2022 midterms were concerned with attacks against the election process.
This is a concern nationwide. According to election forecaster Five-thirty Eight, 60% of Americans had a candidate who denied the results of the 2020 election on their ballot. This false claim stems from former President Donald Trump, who claimed that voter fraud led to the election of current President Joe Biden. This claim has been proven to be false.
A large number of Republican voters also like it when candidates deny the results of the 2020 election. According to a Pew poll from August, over half of Republicans like political leaders who assert the 2020 election was stolen.
Veterans at the VFW post were concerned with this effort by Trump and the candidates he has backed as a move to undermine elections. But they were also concerned with systemic issues surrounding elections, such as voter turnout and the rights of those formerly incarcerated to vote.
“You got to figure out how to get more people out to vote and register to vote,” Person said.
“People that have been incarcerated who have served time should be given a portion of their rights back to be able to vote, just like everybody else,” he said.
For now, voting rights have been restored to those with felonies on their record, making up over 55,000 people in North Carolina, CPP reported last year. That decision is pending, however, as it has been appealed to the N.C. Supreme Court, The Associated Press reported in May.
For Tuesday’s elections, those with felonies on their record were allowed to register to vote, the N.C. Board of Elections announced in July.
Economy and inflation
The state of the economy was the top issue going into the midterm elections according to the Marist poll.
According to an October poll from Elon University, 85% of those surveyed in North Carolina gave the economy a C grade or lower, indicating satisfactory or average performance or worse.
“A lot of people struggling,” said Army veteran Claude Bright, 61, of Hope Mills. “A lot of the living paycheck to paycheck … got to make a decision. Put gas in my car to get to work? Or put food on the table for my kids?”
According to the latest consumer price index from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price of all goods and services has increased by 7.7% since this time last year. The increase is highest for food and energy at 10.9% and 17.6%, respectively.
Person said that the economy has been declining for low-income people for years.
According to a 2020 study from Pew, the wealth gap between the poorest and richest families across the country more than doubled from 1989 to 2016.
“The economy has been in crisis for years,” Person said. “We got individuals that are in certain positions, that’s making money, but none of that money is rolling back downhill to the average individual.”
Additional veteran concerns
One issue that was important for all the veterans interviewed was homelessness among veterans.
“We need to do something for the homeless veterans. I mean, we’re the richest country in the world. And we still have homeless veterans that’s living on the bridges, living in tents. And I just think that’s demoralizing every time I see that,” said Army veteran Kenneth Joy, 75, of Fayetteville.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2021 point in time count for homeless people within a community, there were two sheltered homeless veterans in Cumberland County. Across all of the North Carolina, the number was 646.
HUD’s point in time count is limited, however. It only accounts for those homeless living in a homeless shelter or in transitional housing, typically meaning they’re staying with a friend or relative temporarily with no place of their own. The count also only occurs one night each year. The actual number may be and is probably much higher.
“Everybody speaks veterans, when it comes to special occasions — Veterans Day, Patriots Day, you name it. But at the end of the day, what are you doing to help the veterans?” Person said. “We’re called upon to go take care of the country, but then when we come home, we’re pretty much forgotten.”
Veterans feeling like political ‘pawns’
Polarization among Americans has risen in recent years with both members of each party increasingly viewing the other as “close-minded,” “dishonest,” “unintelligent” or even “immoral,” according to polling in August 2022 from Pew.
This conflict among voters influences political campaign strategies, from the view of Marine veteran Charles Mack, 77, of Fayetteville. He said it keeps candidates from talking about the issues.
“Every time you have an election, most of the candidates talk about the candidates. They never tell you what they’re planning to do or what they’re offering the people that they should be supporting,” he said.
Beard said issues that affect veterans get ignored amid this political polarization, delaying progress that should have happened years ago, from his view.
One example Beard cited was the PACT Act, federal legislation passed this year that expands benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits and toxic substances such as Agent Orange, a name for chemicals used as military operations during the Vietnam War.
“It takes years and years for something that should pass within a few months,” he said. “I think we’re being used as pawns. I really do.”
The only way out of polarization affecting veterans and the general population negatively, from Beard’s perspective, is to put the collective energy toward addressing the issues instead of blaming each other. He said veterans themselves can get caught up in partisan fighting.
“Until we figure out a way to bring us back together as a people, then we’re not going to get into these issues. All we’re doing is pointing fingers … and that’s not going to fix the situation, ” Beard said. “We’re only going to make it worse before somebody realizes that ‘OK, so we’re done pointing fingers. Now, what are we doing to fix this?’ That’s what we got to do.”
01- Retired Sgt. Maj. Kenneth Joy, 75, served in the Marine Corps for 30 years. Joy is a Vietnam Veteran who also served during conflicts Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Joy retired in August 1992. Joy now lives in Fayetteville and was photographed at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6018 in Fayetteville on Nov. 9. Photo: Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press
02- Retired Chief Warrant Officer 2 Claude Bright, 61, served in the Army for 22 years. Bright was involved in conflicts in Somalia and Desert Storm and Desert Shield in the Persian Gulf. Bright now lives in Hope Mills and was photographed at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6018 in Fayetteville on Nov. 9. Photo: Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press
03- Retired Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Person, 61, served in the Army with tours in Germany, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Hungary and Albania. Person now lives in Fayetteville and was photographed at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6018 in Fayetteville on Nov. 9. Photo: Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press
04- Linda Shanton, 60, served as a practical nursing specialist in the Army for 15 years. Now a civilian, Shanton works as nurse at Fort Bragg and was photographed at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Oost 6018 in Fayetteville on Nov. 9. Photo: Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press
05- Charles Mack, 77, served in the Marine Corps for 30 years. Mack now lives in Fayetteville and was photographed at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6018 in Fayetteville on Nov. 9. Photo: Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press
06 – Retired Staff. Sgt. LaFaith Artis, 61, served in the Army for 20 years and retired in 1991. Artis now lives in Goldsboro and was photographed at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6018 in Fayetteville on Nov. 9. Photo: Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press
07- Perry W. Saunders Jr., 52, served in the Army for 21 years, retiring with the 82nd Airborne in June 2013. Saunders now lives in Hope Mills and was photographed at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6018 in Fayetteville on Nov. 9. Photo: Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press
08- Retired Staff. Sgt. Alberto Cordew, 69, served in the Army for 20 years with overseas deployments in Egypt, Korea, Germany, Honduras and Panama. Cordew now lives in Fayetteville and was photographed at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6018 in Fayetteville on Nov. 9. Photo: Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press
09- Retired Staff. Sgt. Jorge Orozco, 50, served in the Army. Orozco now lives in Fayetteville and was photographed at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6018 in Fayetteville on Nov. 9. Photo: Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press