On July 2, government officials joined veterans and other members of the public in Townsend to dedicate a section of U.S. Highway 321 as “Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Highway.” It was a solemn event, patriotic sentiments heightened by Lt. Gen. R.A. Tiebout’s stirring account of the war and the often-contemptuous reception that servicemen and women encountered upon returning home.
Tiebout’s stories reminded me that many veterans today still are disregarded. It reminded me that hundreds of thousands of retired service members do not even have the right to vote simply because of where in America they live.
One of these invisible veterans was born under Axis occupation during World War II. When Frank was only a year old, American forces liberated his homeland, people, family and himself. By the time he reached high school, Frank’s family sent him 7,000 miles away to Minnesota in hopes he would find a better education.
While in Minnesota, Frank worked the Silver Bay iron mines in the summer and even met a young woman from Shakopee and eventually married her.
In 1966, Frank joined the Air Force and trained as a navigator. He soon found himself assigned to flying B-52s over Vietnam. Over the next 24 years, Frank studied at the NATO Defense College in Rome and worked at the Pentagon planning cruise missile strategy. By the time he retired in 1990, Frank had risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
At this point, triumph turns to tribulation. After retiring, Frank and his wife decided to move back to Frank’s homeland: Guam, an island territory of the United States. Frank, along with the island’s other native Chamorros, had been made U.S. citizens in 1950 with the Organic Act. Even though they were living in America and American citizens, neither Frank nor his wife could vote for a representative or senator in Congress or even the president. Being a territory rather than a state, Guam has no representation in the federal government besides a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives.
Today, 170,000 people live on Guam. They are as patriotically American as the 133,000 who call Blount County home. According to Guam’s Office of Veterans Affairs, about one in every eight adult Guamanians is a veteran. No state comes close to that level of service. About 30% of Guam’s land is owned by the Department of Defense and used as military bases. The highest among the 50 states isn’t even 6%.
Despite giving so much to our country’s defense, and owing largely to their lack of voting rights, Guam’s veterans are appallingly underserved. Veterans looking for a PTSD treatment program through Veterans Affairs have no practical options: The nearest location is more than 3,000 miles away in Hawaii. In 2012, Guam received $800 in VA medical care spending per veteran. For reference, the state that received the least funding still got $1,300 per veteran.
Across the U.S. territories of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, there are around 400,000 invisible veterans in addition to another 3.1 million American citizens. Right now, none of them can vote for president — the person who could draft them into service, runs the VA and gets a veto on the federal payroll, business and excise taxes they pay. All 3.5 million are second-class citizens.
The most immediate, achievable remedy would be a constitutional amendment to grant Americans in the territories the right to at least vote for president, as the 23rd Amendment did for people in Washington, D.C.
We who already have the vote must take a stand on this and ask Congress to prioritize such an amendment to finally achieve universal suffrage in America and recognize the thus-far invisible veterans. If you want to support this cause, you could sign a digital petition I’ve started (www.change.org/VotingRights4All) that will be sent to several members of Congress. If you’d rather be more direct, you can call the area offices of our congresspeople and let them know you believe all Americans deserve voting rights: Rep. Tim Burchett 865-984-5464, Sen. Marsha Blackburn 865-540-3781 and Sen. Bill Hagerty 865-545-4253.
I’d like to end with a confession. Frank’s full name is Lt. Col. Francisco Camacho. My Tata (Chamorro for “grandpa”) never complains that he can’t participate in the democracy he protected for 24 years.
Even though our country’s current law restricts his civil rights and does not consider him equal to you and me, my Tata still loves America. Every July 21, the day American forces liberated Guam from Japanese occupation, he prays that God will continue to bless our nation. If my Tata isn’t American, I’m not sure who is. If my Tata isn’t American, I certainly am not.