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Election Support Teams help ensure Iraqi vote

15 Oct 2005 | Capt. Juliet R. Chelkowski

Over 200,000 Iraqi people in Al Anbar Province recently made their way to polling sites for Iraq’s Constitutional Referendum.  The voters safely made their voices heard without even seeing the forces that were instrumental in making it possible. 

In response to a request from the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq and the Ministry of Interior, the 2nd Marine Division deployed several election support elements comprised of Marines, Sailors and Soldiers throughout the province. These teams provided behind-the-scenes logistics support and ensured poll workers and material moved unimpeded between polling sites. 

According to the 2nd Marine Division Elections Officer, Lt. Col. Raymond Decker, these teams were “critical enablers” for the success of the elections.  “Without their superb leadership and situational flexibility, [the election] would not have been so smoothly executed,” he said.

Over 1,300 poll workers were sent from Baghdad International Airport (BIAP), the location of the first liaison team, to the poll worker camps at Al Asad and Al Taqaddam where they remained until Election Day.   Once at the camps, the poll workers were escorted by election support teams and security personnel to their billeting areas for food, rest, and polling station training.

The six-day evolution was not without its challenges, however.  Mechanical problems and bad weather grounded aircraft, some election officials arrived at the wrong location and a last-minute request that sent Marines scrambling for air support and ballots were just some of the obstacles the Marines overcame.

Lt.Col. Craig Evans, who led the liaison team at Al Taqaddam, described the call his team received at noon on Election’s Day from a polling site requesting 600 additional ballots.  The challenge was finding extra ballots, assembling them, getting aircraft redirected to support the mission and delivering the ballots to the sites within an hour of the polls closing at 5 p.m.

“Around [3 p.m.], two CH-46 helicopters with two Cobra gunship [helicopter] escorts show up, ballots are loaded, and away they go, off to save the day,” the Exton, Penn. native explained.  “That was good stuff.”

Major Patricia Bacon, team leader for the Al Asad liaison team and 6th CAG Adjutant, spoke to some of the poll workers and learned of the risk they faced by becoming directly involved with the elections. “Many of these poll workers have put their families at risk and were afraid to return home with thoughts of family member murdered by the insurgents,” the Largo, Fla. native said.  Her experience with them helped her gain a newfound respect for the daily challenges the Iraqi’s face. “My hat is off to all the poll workers who took a risk for themselves and their family to make their country a better place for generations to come.”

The challenges and frustrations did not mask the importance of the event and the milestone it marks in the history of Iraq – and the Marines took notice. 

“I feel I was part of history – albeit a small part – especially when the poll workers were returning from the polling sites with the boxes of ballots,” said Capt. Brad Ellis, a 2nd Marine Division Iraqi Security Force Operations Officer and member of the Al Asad liaison team.  “I couldn’t help but think of how their future was contained in those plastic bins. I look forward to being able to talk with my kids about this when they read about it in their textbooks someday.”

Others, such as Lt. Col. Ted Wells, who led the liaison efforts at BIAP, noticed how important this day was for the people of Iraq.  He described an Iraqi man who was the owner and manager of a small manufacturing facility with 25 to 30 employees.

“Because he believed in the process and wanted to be involved so much, he closed the factory in order for them to participate,” Wells said.

For some Marines, doing the behind-the-scenes work for the elections has re-awakened their own national spirit and hope other Americans will follow the Iraqis’ example. 

“It was inspiring to see these poll workers go out there, and for the Iraqis to vote in such huge numbers even with the threat of being the victim of an insurgent bullet or bomb,” said Lt. Col. Evans. “People back in the USA should take notice and make the extra effort to go out and vote!”

Major Bacon agreed and said she is taking the lessons she learned from this experience back to the Chicago middle school students she teaches. “I not only can talk about democracy, I have actually seen democracy in the making, and there is not a greater American privilege,” she said.