WASHINGTON — Brandon Ziegler served two tours in Iraq and wears a bracelet inscribed with the name of an Army buddy who never made it home. Jim Morin saw action in both Iraq and Afghanistan and has lost several friends to the war in Iraq, the latest just a month ago.
Both say their choice in the 2008 presidential election is clear: For Ziegler, it will be John McCain; for Morin, it will be Barack Obama.
Those viewing the presidential race through the lens of military service can see it entirely differently: The desire to quickly get out of Iraq is balanced against the hope to see the country stabilized; respect for one candidate's storied military history is weighed against another's relative youth; concern about the war's drain on the U.S. Treasury is measured against the wish for expanded benefits for new veterans.
Sizing up the candidates as the nation prepares to celebrate Independence Day, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald Friday in South Carolina laughs and predicts "it's going to be an interesting summer." Put him in the undecided column.
McCain, with a family tradition of military service and his own history as a Vietnam prisoner of war, holds natural appeal for members of the military and for veterans. An AP-Yahoo News poll conducted last month, found that veterans favored McCain over Obama 49 percent to 32 percent, while the two candidates ran about even in the population as a whole. Three-fourths of veterans in the survey thought McCain would be a good leader of the military, compared with one-fourth who thought likewise of Obama.
Nonetheless, dissatisfaction with the course of the war under President Bush and with the treatment of veterans returning home has given Obama, who did not serve in the armed forces, an opening with military voters and veterans. So does his appeal to younger people.
That Obama attracts support from some in the military is evident in dollars and cents: Among people who have donated at least $200 to a presidential campaign this election cycle, Obama has collected more than $327,000 from those identifying themselves as military personnel, while McCain has collected $224,000, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission data by The Associated Press.
But it is in the voices of recent veterans and, to a lesser extent, of those still serving in the military, that the McCain vs. Obama debate comes alive _ although most active-duty personnel are loath to air their views publicly because they are discouraged from mixing in politics.
Friday, who retired last year after serving as the top command sergeant major at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, said he doesn't want either candidate to take his vote for granted, based on his race or his career.
"I don't want anyone to think that because he (Obama) is of the African-American heritage that he automatically has my vote, or that McCain will get it because I was in the military," said Friday, who is black.
Friday, 49, added that he understands what McCain meant when he said the United States could have troops in Iraq for 100 years, but he doesn't necessarily support the statement. Still, he predicted, "We will be in Iraq until death do we part."
Such talk rankles Sgt. Kenyon Ralph, 24, of San Diego. Ralph, a Marine reservist who served in Iraq twice, is a member of Iraq Veterans Against The War, and is backing Obama.
Ralph, who once was a registered Republican and twice voted for Bush, says he gradually turned against the war and now can't bring himself to vote for someone who supports keeping troops in Iraq.
"What did he say? One hundred years or something," Ralph said of McCain. "We've got five down and 95 more years to go."
Sgt. Maj. Brent Dick, a 35-year-old career soldier stationed at Fort Bliss in Texas, hasn't decided whom he'll vote for in November, but he agrees with McCain's stance on Iraq.
"I favor staying there until we are done with our mission," said Dick. He said the candidates' plans for Iraq will be one deciding factor in his vote but the weakening economy also is a huge concern.
Dick, who served in Afghanistan, said McCain's military service and his time as a prisoner of war are pushing him toward the senator from Arizona.
"I think that means something for their character," said Dick, interviewed as he and his 8-year-old son got ready to play golf on a recent afternoon at the Fort Bliss golf course.
Not far away, standing outside his off-post home after work, Darrell Warren, a 41-year-old staff sergeant at Fort Bliss, said he's also on the fence, but leaning the other way.
"I'm a Democrat," said Warren, who served three tours in Iraq. He said that while the war will be an issue for him in picking a president, he doesn't see military service as a must.
"They don't necessarily have to have served in the military to know about it," he said.
Ziegler, interviewed in the library at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania after attending a night class, sees three reasons to vote for McCain entwined in the Republican's military service: He connects to McCain as a war veteran, believes it makes sense during wartime to have a president who's served, and says McCain's POW history speaks to the quality of his character.
As for Obama, says Ziegler: "He's new and he's young. He's got what seem like new ideas. I don't think now's the right time for that, being that we are in Iraq."
By contrast, Morin, whose 10 years in the military included four years as a West Point cadet, thinks Obama has the most "comprehensive solutions to complex problems" in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also said he was disappointed by McCain's opposition to an expansion of the GI bill that would offer full military scholarships for those who serve three years in the military.
"I have a lot of respect for McCain," says Morin. "Everyone in the military is going to tell you that." But then he adds: "I don't think he has anything new to offer. His mind-set is really stuck maybe in the Vietnam era, and the conflicts we're facing now have nothing to do with Vietnam."
Richard Topping, a former Army legal officer who spent more than five years on active duty, said McCain's military record is impressive, but he finds the senator's open-ended commitment to Iraq troubling.
"I care far more about the economy, which has me leaning left this election," said Topping, who works as a Justice Department attorney. "Time for new people and new ideas here in D.C."
McCain has plenty of brass speaking out for his candidacy: While active-duty military personnel are expected to keep out of politics, more than 100 former generals and admirals have endorsed the Republican candidate.
Richard Kohn, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied the gap between military and civilian attitudes and culture, said that while members of the military, particularly the officer corps, in recent decades have favored Republicans, the enlisted force is much more politically balanced. And Kohn said there are signs that "the shine has probably worn off the Republican brand to some degree among the military," in part because of discontent with Bush over foreign policy and veterans' issues.
In what may be one sign of the trend, individuals who identified themselves as members of the uniformed services have donated 38 percent of their dollars to Democratic candidates, party committees and leadership PACs so far this election cycle, compared with 22 percent during the 2000 campaign overall, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based group that tracks political campaign money