Voting honors sacrifices

Part 2 of the Your Vote Counts series

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Voting is a privilege, not a right. That's a mantra that Craig resident Tonee Gingrich has always held close to her heart -- even before she lost her grandson in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

But now, her passion for the democratic process is not just based on her own belief that each vote counts. It's been bolstered by the stories -- from the Iraqi front lines -- about those who are willing to die to preserve those freedoms.

Gingrich's grandson, Marine Pfc. Chance Phelps, died in April while serving as a machine gunner in Iraq. He had been in Iraq for a little more than a month. Phelps' zeal for voting lives on in his family members.

"He loved the president and said we have to stand up for him or we won't have what we have today," Gingrich said.

His mother called Phelps "very politically aware."

"The night of the presidential election, he stayed up all night waiting for the results," she said.

That's not unheard of in his family.

"We need to vote," Gingrich said. "Our voice is heard through our vote. If we don't vote, we have no right to complain."

Despite the controversy surrounding the Iraqi invasion, Gingrich said it illustrates her point perfectly: American soldiers believe so much in the rights they have, they're willing to fight -- and die -- to ensure others have the same rights.

"The Iraqi conflict was the right choice," Gingrich said. "It's better for the Iraqi people. If you saw what was happening to them. It had to be done."

She's heard stories of children hugging American soldiers and saying, "thank you."

"Americans should be very, very proud of the veterans, the soldiers, who helped others who didn't have what we have. They fought for that by simply saying, 'I will,'" Gingrich said.

Forty-five-year-old Allen Swenson doesn't even think he's registered to vote, but after a yearlong tour in Iraq, he's going to vote this year."

"I'd like to see Bush finish what he started," he said. "I think I pay more attention now to what's going on and vote for what I feel is right."

The Army National Reserve staff sergeant has served oversees in Panama, Germany, Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. His son, Dustin, just left for his second eight-month stint in Iraq. It's those experiences that make Swenson a true believer in democracy.

"There are too many Americans who live here that have no idea, no clue what they have," he said. "They've never been out of the U.S. to a Third World country."

Swenson said he's seen people with no freedom of choice or movement -- people who have no control over their lives. In Panama, he built a road to a mountain village and met villagers who worked an 8-by-10-foot piece of property, lived in a shack and never knew there was anything different. No member of that village had ever been out of it. The stories he tells about the lack of freedoms he witnessed while in Iraq are even more chilling.

"When Saddam was in power, they had zero freedoms," Swenson said. "They did what he said and that was it."

He described the Iraqi people as being "timid" in accepting newfound freedoms, not understanding what they were getting, and too fearful to accept it. Swenson said his tour gave him a new respect for democracy.

"Every time I've left this country, I have a deeper respect for the freedoms we have," he said. "I believe every American should have to leave for three months."

He said there would be a lot fewer complaints about America if people saw what their options were; and he takes a hard line toward those who complain.

"If you don't have what you want here, go somewhere else and try to find it," he challenged.

There have been 983 coalition deaths in Iraq as of Monday -- 865 Americans, 60 Britons, six Bulgarians, one Dane, one Dutch, one Estonian, one Hungarian, 18 Italians, one Latvian, six Poles, one Salvadoran, three Slovaks, 11 Spaniards, two Thai and six Ukrainians.

At least 5,394 U.S. troops have been wounded in action, according to the Pentagon.

"It takes someone dedicated to what they believe in -- their freedoms and rights -- to stand up to someone else and to protect others," he said.

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