Early Sunday, 280 Guam soldiers were welcomed home by thousands of family and friends following a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan.
In the coming days and weeks several hundred more are expected. But while nearly these 600 members of the Guam National Guard have fought to protect democracy in Afghanistan, they are denied full democratic participation at home. In the 2016 U.S. General Election, they will be unable to vote for President and will only elect a non-voting Delegate to Congress.
“Where you live, whether it is a state, territory, or the District of Columbia, should not affect your right to vote. If residents of Guam and other U.S. territories are putting their lives on the line to defend democracy, they deserve to be its full participants,” said Neil Weare, President of We The People Project, a non-profit organization that works to achieve full voting rights for residents of U.S. territories and the District of Columbia.
A month into deployment two Guam soldiers, Spc. Dwayne Flores, 22, and Sgt. Eugene Aguon, 23, were killed in a car bomb, a tragedy that shook Guam’s community of 160,000 residents. Now the mission is complete, and the remaining soldiers are in Camp Shelby, Mississippi, where Guam Governor Eddie Calvo is visiting the troops as they await their return home. About 35 Guam soldiers from other units remain in Afghanistan.
Since Guam became part of the United States 115 years ago, it has had a proud tradition of military service. Guam ranks higher than any state in its per capita enlistment rates. 1 out of 20 Guam residents is a military veteran, according to the US Census. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Guam’s casualty rates have been 450% higher than the national average based on figures from the Washington Post’s “Faces of the Fallen” project. During World War II Guam endured a brutal enemy occupation that resulted in 1000+ civilian deaths. Today, Guam’s location just a few hours flight from Asia provides important strategic value to the US, but also puts Guam at risk from North Korea and other threats.
Guam’s residents are not alone in being denied the right to vote for President. Neither can residents of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands. These five areas have a combined population of over 4 million, greater than about half the states and about the same as the six smallest states combined. Since 2001, over 20,000 military service members from these areas have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Guam Guard’s return this month comes as President Obama prepares for his State of the Union Address. Last year President Obama said when any American, no matter where they live, is denied the right to vote “We are betraying our ideals.”
“Being an American should mean being able to vote for President, especially for those who serve. While residents of Guam and other U.S. territories participate in party primaries, it’s long past time they get to vote for President in the General Election,” said Neil Weare.
Photo Credit: Guam National Guard Photo by Cpt. Ken Ola