The war the election forgot
It’s easy to tell 1st Sgt. Patrick Olechny is away. The freezer is stocked with single-serving dinners. The TV is off and, at nearly 8 p.m., the living room is dark.
Olechny is at war in Afghanistan, on his fourth tour of combat duty. His wife, Veda, is waiting for his return — in time for Thanksgiving, she prays each night.
War sets the rhythm for military families like theirs: Home by 9, in case he beeps on Skype. Cellphone charged, in case he calls. No point buying pot roast; she can’t finish it herself.
But for just about everyone else, the war is easy to ignore. In this turbulent election season — amid the talk of “tea parties” and the economy and President Obama’s approval rating and the fight to control Congress and bailouts and deficits and fear and anger — there is little mention of Afghanistan or Iraq.
“I hate to say we’ve moved on, but politically and from an election standpoint there’s nobody out there trying to prosecute this as an issue,” said Evan Tracey, whose Campaign Media Analysis Group tracks political advertising nationwide. “There’s no discussion in any detail in any campaign that I’ve seen at any level, state or federal.”
Even here in the shadow of Dover Air Force Base, where the coffins come home, the political conversation is not about war but witchcraft — a youthful dalliance of Republican Senate hopeful Christine O’Donnell — and whether her Democratic rival, Chris Coons, was only joking when he described himself in a college essay as “a bearded Marxist.”
Veda doesn’t blame people for their inattention. They have troubles of their own. “People are busy with their lives because of the economy. It’s understandable,” she says. “A wife sitting at home waiting for a soldier to finish deployment, that’s her focus every day. You want to tell people about it, then you realize they really aren’t interested.”
The United States is now in the ninth year of the longest conflict in its history, fought by 150,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq at a cost of more than $1 trillion. That is considerably more than the ultimate price of the much-debated Troubled Asset Relief Program, which bailed out automakers, banks and a handful of insurers.
Yet neither party has much incentive to discuss the fighting half a world away.
Democrats are pleased with the winding down of U.S. involvement in Iraq, but divided over Obama’s decision to escalate efforts in Afghanistan; they don’t want to pile onto a president already in political trouble.
Republicans, unhappy with Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war when he ran for president, tend to agree with his approach in Afghanistan; but they aren’t about to praise the Democratic commander in chief in the middle of the midterm campaign.
But for the Olechnys, avoidance is not an option.
He’s 57, she’s 56. They live in a double-wide trailer on two acres they bought 37 years ago on the Maryland- Delaware border. They grew up on the Delaware side, where chickens outnumber people 300 to 1.
He used to chase her around the playground in grade school. At 16, she was engaged. At 17, he joined the Army and went to Vietnam. She wrote him every day. They married as soon as he returned, before she even graduated.
Veda figured her husband’s combat days were over, and for 25 years they were. He trained in Vietnam to fix helicopters, which proved a valuable skill back home. He was hired by the Army National Guard as a civilian mechanic. He also joined the Guard, which meant a weekend a month of soldiering and two weeks in the summer. She was OK with that.
Then in 1996, at age 43, he volunteered to go to Bosnia. Who goes to war at 43? And where is Bosnia? Veda was confused. Nine weeks later he came home in one piece. “I told him if he ever did that again I would divorce him,” she remembers, laughing.
Years passed. Then came Sept. 11, 2001, followed by the war in Iraq. In the summer of 2004, Olechny’s unit was called. “I swear Veda, I did not volunteer,” he told her. It didn’t matter. He had a skill his country needed. At 51, he was headed back to war.
The way the military is structured, service members and their families can be inconspicuous. The active-duty force is tucked away on far-off installations — Ft. Hood on the plains of Texas, Ft. Benning in the piney woods of Georgia.
“They train in remote areas, then get on a plane and go,” said Norbert R. Ryan Jr., a retired Navy vice admiral and president of the Virginia-based Military Officers Assn. of America. “Out of sight, out of mind.”
For members of the National Guard and Reserves — civilians like Olechny called up for war — the isolation seems even more acute. They are sprinkled throughout 3,000 or so communities across the country, attached to no base, no military housing, no ready group of people like them.
Veda can count on one hand the number of military households in Marydel, population 1,117, a half-hour drive from Dover. Amish buggies are a more familiar site than Army uniforms. When her husband left, she slept in his T-shirt for weeks.
“I cried an awful lot,” she says, lighting a cigarette in the dining room, which serves as a shrine to her husband’s service and reflects her efforts to stay busy. His first of two bronze stars is in a curio cabinet. The patriotic birdhouse she painted is a centerpiece.
In the months after the Iraq war began, the country was flush with patriotism and there seemed no end of support for the 1% of Americans fighting for everybody else. Soon enough, the military was showing the strain of multiple deployments and a vicious ground war: amputations, traumatic brain injuries, rising rates of suicide, divorce, prescription drug addiction. Few in the civilian world knew, or much cared.
The fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has had much less impact than the war in Vietnam, which helped bring down a president and nearly tore the country apart.
“There are not as many people fighting,” said Daniel Hallin, a UC San Diego political scientist who has written extensively on war and its coverage in the media. “There are not as many young people worrying about being drafted and sent there. No one goes unless they volunteer. That makes it less of an issue.”
The year her husband spent in Iraq, Veda lived alone for the first time ever. Their son, P.J., was married and on his own. The separation was different from Olechny’s time in Vietnam. Back then, with no cellphones or e-mail, Veda’s only connection was the nightly news -- and she stayed glued. This time, she wanted nothing to do with war coverage that would only upset her. She drove straight home from her job as a unit manager at a credit card company and waited.
“I lived around his phone calls, stayed home instead of going out, afraid I would miss him,” she says. When she knew his unit was flying a mission, and he didn’t check in, she e-mailed: “Car 54, where are you?”
In 2005, Olechny came home to a yard studded with yellow ribbons and flags, four volunteer fire trucks and a gantlet of friends. “I told the general, ‘That’s it,’ ” Veda said, already planning her husband’s retirement and the traveling they would do.
The retirement lasted two weeks. Aviation mechanics were in higher demand than ever for two wars that depend on aircraft to move troops and supplies and transport casualties. Olechny was asked back to his civilian job to fix helicopters part time. He stayed in the Guard, determined to serve 40 years.
In December, his unit — Company A 3/238 Aviation Battalion — was called to Afghanistan. Veda didn’t bother to try to talk him out of it: “It gets in their blood.”
It took a month before their dogs, Butchie and Mattie, stopped waiting for him at the door. She knew how they felt.
By then, the housing market had collapsed, Wall Street had nearly cratered, unemployment soared and the country’s mind was firmly fixed on other problems.
In Washington, what Ryan, the former vice admiral, called the “Pearl Harbor moment” faded and with it the unflagging support for America’s troops. A deficit-conscious Congress left town last month to campaign without passing the bill that pays for defense. When lawmakers return, they are set to approve the lowest military pay raises in nearly half a century.
“After almost 10 years of war and enormous sacrifice, that’s the wrong message,” Ryan said. “Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.”
The laptop beeps in the corner of the Olechny dining room and Veda pulls up a chair. It’s 9 p.m. A black clock is set for Afghanistan time: 5:30 a.m. Her husband’s image from his plywood hut pops up. This is how he starts his day and she ends hers.
When the phone rings with campaign calls, Veda hangs up. No candidate is talking about a war she can’t stop thinking about. She’s not even sure she’ll vote Tuesday.
This spring, Patrick Olechny will have met his goal of 40 years of service and Veda will have seen him through four wars. She has grown from a love-struck schoolgirl writing letters to her “Soldier Boy” (it was their song) to a battle-tested military wife and support group leader helping others hold on.
People sometimes tell her that after all this time she must have gotten used to it. Veda shakes her head.
“You never get used to it,” she says. “You just get through it.”