Military veterans are deploying their own 'quick reaction force' to counter Trump's 'Army' at the polls
- Military veterans anticipating disturbance at polling places throughout the country organized a nonviolent "quick reaction force" — a term used in the armed forces for the small teams that provide immediate assistance in an emergency.
- Roughly 200 veterans signed up with a progressive organization to train in deescalation techniques for use at polling locations. The unarmed veteran-volunteers handed out water, hand sanitizers, and face masks for voters waiting in lines.
- The effort comes as President Trump's reelection campaign kicked off a recruitment effort for an "Army" of poll watchers.
- "As veterans we have put our lives on the line in defense of our country before, and we are mobilizing now," the executive director of Common Defense said.
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Military veterans anticipating disturbance at polling places throughout the country established a nonviolent "quick reaction force" — a term used in the armed forces for the small teams that respond immediately in an emergency.
In the last few weeks, roughly 200 veterans signed up to train in deescalation techniques with Common Defense, a grassroots organization aimed at electing progressive candidates and advancing policies for former service members. The veterans also mobilized to 45 different cities throughout the country in order to recruit other veterans to join their cause.
"Our purpose … is to make sure that we have an election that is fair and that is peaceful," Stephanie Flores, Common Defense's communications manager and US Navy veteran, told Insider.
Flores said the organization taught various deescalation techniques for the veteran-volunteers to protest safely and to "make sure all of our ballots are counted" during the election season.
"We've heard it everywhere in the media, even the FBI, there is a real threat about armed militias and all of that," Flores said, referring to reports of voter intimidation by armed citizens. "So that's why we're preparing our veterans and our leaders to be ready to deescalate and protest safely. But our main goal and how we're planning to do this is through narrative.
"As veterans, we swore an oath to protect our democracy, which also means ensuring a fair election where all the votes are counted transparently," Flores added.
Numerous allegations of voter intimidation surfaced after states began their early voting process — some of reports insinuating some sort of involvement by the US military. In one voting site hosted by a public library near Miami, Florida, on Saturday, a person wearing military fatigues was seen standing behind supporters of President Donald Trump, according to an NBC News journalist.
The man wore a previous version of the US Army's combat uniform — complete with a unit crest his beret and VELCRO patches signifying their current affiliation with the military branch — and a pistol holster on his thigh.
Despite his appearance, the man was likely not currently in the service: his facial beard was in violation of the Army's grooming standards; and based on his physical appearance, he likely did not meet the service's body-fat and weight standards.
The man's appearance alarmed some veterans, many of whom emphasized that people without military experience would not be able to tell the difference between him and an active-duty service member.
"Whether he served in the Army at one time or not, his presence at a polling site in this uniform creates the appearance of military involvement in political activities," retired Marine Corps Col. David Lapan, a former Pentagon spokesman, told Insider. "However, if he's not currently serving — active duty, National Guard or Reserve — he's not in violation of [Defense Department] regulations."
"Whether it's a current uniform or an old one, the appearance to the public of inappropriate military involvement in elections is the same," Lapan added.
The example at the public library in Miami may have been an isolated incident, according to Alex McCoy, Common Defense's policy director and a Marine Corps veteran.
"We expected there to be a lot more right-wing group voter intimidation at polling places and early voting sites than there actually seems to have been," McCoy told Insider. "Any of it is bad, obviously, but we were worried it would be more extensive and more widespread."
McCoy added that the group was still preparing for "very limited counter-demonstrations" in the country and that his members would "be present and be visible as a deescalatory measure."
'We have put our lives on the line in defense of our country before'
On Saturday, six veteran-volunteers handed out water, hand sanitizers, and face masks for voters waiting in lines at a polling place in North Carolina.
Kyle Pritz, the lead organizer for Common Defense's North Carolina branch and a former US Marine, said his team was specifically called upon for assistance by another organization that experienced "overt" instances of voter intimidation from "neo-Confederates."
North Carolina has been fraught with racial tensions amid the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement and the 2017 Charlottesville protests that turned into a deadly car attack. At a separate protest in the same county on Saturday, several people, including children, were pepper-sprayed by law enforcement officials during a march to the polls. Police officials claimed the protest was unsafe and that the activists did not disperse after being ordered to do so.
Pritz said the polling site, which shared a parking lot with a church, was mostly uneventful; however, he noted that patrons at a bar across the street were brandishing their handguns. It is legal to openly carry a firearm in the state.
Volunteers had to sign waivers to attend the event and received guidance beyond their normal training on deescalation methods. The military veterans were instructed not to wear any clothing containing military camouflage and were prohibited from carrying weapons. Most of them wore regular clothes with "veteran signifiers," such as a hat denoting their military service.
All volunteers were also vetted for their military service and were interviewed to make sure they were competent enough to control themselves if things escalated, according to Flores, the organization's communications manager.
The effort comes as President Trump's reelection campaign kicked off a recruitment effort for an "Army" of poll watchers — a term that is supposed to be used for certified individuals to monitor voting processes for fairness.
Each state has their own regulations, but certified poll watchers are not allowed to engage with voters, and their duties — ensuring votes are counted and reporting violations — are often mundane and non-partisan.
Meanwhile, Trump's surrogates have preemptively questioned the integrity of the current election — often times fueling baseless theories like mail-in election fraud — and appear to be conflating a self-appointed poll-watching protester with a certified poll-watcher.
Common Defense's volunteer-drive comes as military veterans have been recently spotlighted during the civil rights protests this year. Dozens of purported military veterans marched alongside other protesters in the wake of several deaths of Black people, such as in Portland, Oregon. Some of them faced their active-duty counterparts and law enforcement officials on the front lines, including US Navy veteran Christopher David, who was dramatically pepper-sprayed and beaten during the Portland protests in July.
Jose Vasquez, the executive director of Common Defense and a US Army veteran, alleged that Trump's inability to condemn racist behavior and right-wing extremism prompted him and other like-minded veterans to act.
"We are in a historic moment of crisis that could upend our democracy unless we act to block the corruption of Donald Trump and the violence of his most extreme supporters," Vasquez said in a statement. "As veterans we have put our lives on the line in defense of our country before, and we are mobilizing now in historic numbers to protect our fellow citizens and our system of democratic governance."
"As veterans who swore to uphold and defend the Constitution, seeing the President refuse to commit to respect the election results and calling on fascist gangs to rally by his side is the realization of all of our worst fears," he added.
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