Part Four: Service and Sacrifice
A Man’s Journey from Military Service to Political Action in a Changing Iowa
By Dave Degner with Amanda Malaski
All too often we see think pieces about rural America – how they feel, what they believe – written by coastal city dwellers. Sometimes these pieces even discuss rural Americans as the “rural problem,” as though they are just a monolithic nut to be cracked or an electoral puzzle to be solved and not equal Americans with their own lives and stories.
In this series, I will present progressive, rural Iowan lives and stories unfiltered, with as little of my own commentary as possible.
PVI: Dave presented his story to me with such beautiful coherence and clarity that I am just going to step back and let his story unfold.
Dave: I’ll start out just giving you some background on myself and how my own political ideology has evolved to where it is today. I am 39 years old and a lifelong resident of Iowa. Growing up, I spent much of my time with my grandparents. My father was an over the road truck driver, and my mother devoted her time to caring for my brother. At a very young age, he was left severely handicapped after a sudden illness which resulted in him requiring full time supervision and care. So, I often spent days and weeks at a time staying with my grandparents. My mother’s parents lived in the same small town, and although they rarely discussed politics (at least not in front of me) they still had their moments.
Both of them were children of the depression. My grandmother had a brother on the U.S.S. Arizona in Pearl Harbor and another who was a pilot, both serving in World War 2. They moved to Iowa in 1949, from southern Missouri, literally because of the availability of union jobs in Iowa. My grandfather worked at the Rath packing plant until they closed their doors shortly before his retirement. He was a proud union member and was a blue collar, working class man to a T. The TV only came on for the evening news, 60 Minutes and occasionally for an episode of Murder She Wrote. Conversations in their household usually revolved around my school work, his garden, or occasionally a quick summary about the last Louis L’Amour book that he had just read.
But I still remember the day in late January of 2003 when I heard my grandmother swear for the first time and let loose on politics. I was in the Army Reserves at the time and had just received word that I was to be deployed. The momentum for an Iraq invasion was building at lighting speed, and although I was about three weeks away from my ETS date (my discharge date on my enlistment contract) I received the phone call on a Thursday afternoon. Thanks to the Stop/Loss policy, I was to remain in the Reserves until further notice, and I was to report the following Tuesday.
Four days is not much time to prepare when you can’t be told where you are going or for how long, but that you were going somewhere. That evening I had stopped at their house to give them the news that I would be gone, and it was likely that Iraq would be where. My grandfather went to the kitchen where he quietly looked out the window and smoked a cigarette. My grandmother sat on the couch for a moment, and in a shaky voice yelled “That fucking George Bush!!……” Not only had I never heard her yell, I had never heard her swear. The rest of the evening was as if a dam had burst. It was hours of them confessing their disdain for everything that was the Bush Administration, to “don’t be a hero!” and “keep your damned head down over there!” Wise words of advice, but then again, I was just a truck driver in a reserve unit. But in their eyes I suppose it did not matter, I was still being sent to a country that had not attacked us and even they knew, we were probably not going to be welcomed with open arms.
Now, to shift over to my father’s parents. My grandfather farmed and also worked at John Deere. I have yet to know of anyone who worked as hard and as many hours as he did. A proud union man building tractor cabs all day and all night in the field or feeding livestock. He was not ashamed to speak his mind to anyone who would listen, including his grandson. By today’s definition, he would have been a token conservative…rural working class farmer, gun owner, hunter, trapper. But some of my earliest memories included his very passionate rants against Reagan.
Anyone who grew up on a small family farm in Iowa in the 1980’s didn’t just hear about the farm crisis on the news, they lived it every day. Almost half of those families in our area that were farming in the early 80’s were gone by the early 90’s. Some were forced out by foreclosure and most simply chose to sell out and retire. Many, including my grandfather, viewed the Reagan administration as being, at best, indifferent to the plight of the farmers. Add on to that the union strike at Deere that took place and the hostile view of the Reagan administration towards unions, and you can understand why he viewed Republicans as the single biggest threat to working class factory workers and farmers. That is not to say he was a card-carrying Democrat, but he tended to be on the side of progressive issues. And the odd thing is, many of those issues were not considered progressive, it was just a matter of right and wrong.
Being supportive of clean water or environmental issues, being pro union, cannabis friendly (he did grow up in the 60’s), supporting and standing up for public schools, these were all just things everyone did and was not labeled left or right. Going into the 1990’s, he often voiced criticism toward Bill Clinton. But when the Lewinsky scandal broke out, and even at its peak, I was surprised at his support for Clinton. It wasn’t that he was defending what Clinton had done, but was amused at the reaction by Republicans and would point out the hypocrisy of their investigations.
My own mother, like I had mentioned, was a full time caregiver for my younger brother. She also attended college part time for well over a decade to achieve her masters degree. My father was often on the road sometimes for weeks at a time. Both of them rarely spoke of politics but my mother was very much a pro education and women’s rights advocate, and my father was somewhat of an anti-authority, long haired hippy/punk rocker. He would probably laugh and then strongly disagree today at my description of him at that age! We also relied on food stamps several times, and government assistance for medical and educational services for my brother. They both worked hard and sacrificed and still required assistance.
The misconception about people who need government assistance being lazy could not be farther from the truth. I think my parents were the first generation to grow up in what was now the post-industrial world. In the 80’s, it was still assumed around here anyway, that unless you were going to farm or move away, getting a union job at Deere or Rockwell or Amana was encouraged. You received a living wage, health care and a pension. If you were going to live and work here in Iowa, you farmed or worked in a factory. But, as the 90’s approached, it was clear that those opportunities were becoming limited and at a pace that many could not keep up with. Joining the military or driving a truck were very respectable alternatives, but going to college meant leaving Iowa.
Even though there was a lot of open resentment towards Republicans in my family, it wasn’t that any of them were wildly passionate about democrats either. There was, as today, a great deal of mistrust of both parties. However, I still felt there was a consensus that the government was still an institution that most had faith in. Farmers actively participated in programs that built terraces, waterways and set aside acres for wildlife and erosion control. Public schools were often the lifeblood of any small town. Public education in Iowa was our pride and joy.
When you thought of Iowa in the 80’s and 90’s, we had two things…our farms and our schools. Education in Iowa was consistently ranked at or near the top of the nation. When Branstad was governor at the time, his stance on public education solidified his popularity. I remember several times of him coming to our school to speak, and his push to fund more computers and technology in the school district. As this new thing called the internet was beginning to take hold, it was under Branstad that we built computer labs and embraced this new technology. Moving from a farm and factory state to the digital age could be seen in school curricula and classrooms in every small town in the area.
When I was a junior in high school, I made the decision to join the Army Reserve. I had intentions of going active duty, but with my grandfather ageing I felt that staying to help him on the farm was my biggest priority. Plus, I would be able to attend college, something that, other than my mother, had eluded everyone else in my immediate family. So, in 1995, right after my 17th birthday, I signed up and between my junior and senior year went to basic training. Becoming a truck driver in the reserves did not immediately lead me to college though. At 18, I was behind the wheel driving in my civilian job as well. It paid well and there was no shortage of jobs. Getting by in small town Iowa was pretty easy if you were willing to work.
And then came 9/11.
When I think back before then about Muslims, I never had a sense of anyone around here being overly negative about them. In fact, anyone from a different country or culture was welcomed warmly. In a white, rural small community, anyone who was different was someone we all wanted to be friends with. Between foreign exchange students or Hispanic immigrants, anyone different and new was fascinating. It probably goes to show how naive we were to diversity, but I rarely felt as though racism or bigotry existed as much as many of us simply had never interacted with anyone outside of our little bubbles. But after 9/11, I felt that there was a rapidly growing resentment towards those who were different. And not just Muslims, but a growing distrust of anyone who was different. To be fair, it wasn’t everyone, but just enough people to realize something had changed. I didn’t see this in those younger than me or in the bigger more diverse communities.
It might have been the first time I sensed a divide was beginning in our state.
When I was called to active duty in 2003, everyone knew that Iraq was our next target. Fortunately for me, that is not where I ended up. The unit I was assigned with was to deploy to Turkey. But, at the last minute, Turkey refused to allow ground troops into their country. So I spent the better part of the next year stationed on the East Coast. Assigned to a unit based out of New York City, there were a number of soldiers that had either worked in or near the World Trade Center, or had been close to people who were lost on 9/11. I was struck by the difference in attitude of people back home to those who had personally suffered in those terrorist attacks. There was no mistaking their desire to go somewhere and kick someone’s ass, but they were much more realistic about what had happened.
I never once heard anyone referring to a war against Islam, or negative generalizations about Muslims. But back home in Iowa, that was unfortunately not uncommon. By the summer of 2003, the invasion of Iraq seemed, at least briefly, to have been successful and our unit was sent home. Many of my friends and classmate who had joined in the military did go though. When you have graduating classes of less than 50 and 5 to 10 join every year, everybody in a small town knows someone who had served in the military and in Iraq. And with that, we all know someone who did not come home.
There is a reason these small rural communities are so passionately pro-military. When the ultimate sacrifice has touched a small tight knit community, it is felt by everyone. So, when a politician taps into that passion and emotion that runs deep in rural America, many here don’t look at the big picture. They are not considering foreign policy, or how these politicians voted, just the hint of someone being anti-military is sacrilege. And in my opinion, Republicans have capitalized on that quite successfully.
As the Bush years began coming to a close, Iowa followed much of the country in a leftward turn. The war in Iraq was dragging on. The recession had not impacted Iowa nearly as much as many other states, but it was still affecting people. The largest employer in town, an auto parts manufacturer, closed its doors in 2007. We elected a Democratic Governor, Chet Culver, and then Barack Obama won the state in 2008. In 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court struck down the ban on gay marriage making Iowa one of the first states to make marriage equality legal.
But as quickly had we moved to the left, we moved back to the right. Culver lost his reelection to former governor Branstad. Several Supreme Court justices lost their seats in a successful campaign against them for the gay marriage ruling. Population decline had resulted in the loss of a congressional district and an expansion of Steve King’s representation. The once solid blue 1st congressional district went red. Senator Tom Harkin’s retirement resulted in the election of Tea Party darling Joni Ernst. And in 2016, the state legislature went into the hands of Republicans.
The following session, as we know, resulted in the most regressive agenda in state history. We lost the Iowa Juvenile Home. State run mental health care facilities have been shuttered. My mother’s job was eliminated as a mental health care worker for the state run facility in Independence. In less than a decade, we have gone from one the best run states financially to the verge of bankruptcy. Education funding continues to be cut. Unions have lost collective bargaining. Women’s reproductive rights have been limited. Large companies have been showered with tax breaks that have significantly reduced state revenue, and property taxes have increased for everyone else. Counties that have voted to raise minimum wages have been ruled against. Voter ID laws and limiting early voting time. And the privatization of Medicaid has cost the state millions and benefits and services have been reduced threatening the citizens of the state who need help the most including my brother.
In my brother’s case, he has relied on Medicaid for most if his life. When the program was still run by the state, we had a county case manager that was able to review his needs and made decisions based on what was best for the patient. In his case, that was placing him in a full time private care facility. After privatization took place, that local case manager no longer exists. Decisions on care are now determined by an unknown insurance company employee based on costs. My brother has developed pneumonia several times in the past. It was standard practice before to transfer him to the hospital for a chest x-ray and an accurate diagnosis and treating him accordingly. With his last illness, the insurance company decided to treat with antibiotics first and if symptoms persist after several days, then they would authorize the trip to the hospital for follow up testing. There is now a push for many patients to be moved from full time care to group homes or apartments and then receive a daily visit for a checkup.
Health care options that were once decided by the patient, their family, and the provider are not being made on what is best for the patient but what will be the most cost effective. And these are just some of the recent changes we have seen in Medicaid after privatization. With the current republican health care bill in Washington being debated, state Medicaid funding could go to a block grant system – basically, setting a per capita limit per patient on what the state can spend. If that happens, people like my brother would still likely receive care. But, to continue providing for those with severe disabilities with less funds, healthier people who cannot afford private insurance: single mothers, children, the unemployed or under-employed, will all be forced out and go without health care, or they will have to purchase private plans. In the state of Iowa, we only have one company now providing private coverage and they have recently announced a premium increase of around 40% next year and a likely reduction of available ACA subsidies. If people cannot afford the premium now, do you think they will be able to afford it next year? And yet, a surprising number of people still support the direction we are on.
From my perspective, many of these people are single issue voters. I personally know many friends and family members who are pro union, pro education and support the expansion of medicaid and even universal health care and still vote Republican. For a sizable minority of people, gun rights and abortion trumps everything else. So, when Iowa passed “stand your ground” laws and some of the harshest restrictions on abortion in the country, nothing else mattered. And nothing else will matter. We currently have politicians who openly propose taking away your health care, raising your taxes, making it harder to vote and against public education but as long as they are anti-abortion and parrot NRA talking points, they win elections.
Although most of the people I know who voted for Trump are not racist, sexist xenophobes, they still voted for a man who was. And the most common reasoning behind that decision that I hear is Trump is horrible, but Hillary was worse. I disagree with that excuse, but I do think it goes to show two things. Twenty years of conservative talk radio and news waging a war against the Clintons finally paid off. And, the Democratic Party has all but given up campaigning outside of metropolitan areas and college towns.
The popularity of Bernie Sanders here in rural Iowa proves that campaigning on things like universal health care, tuition free college and higher minimum wages was an asset, not a liability. In my opinion, the one single issue that is, or will soon affect the vast majority of Iowans will be access to health care. Even most gun carrying, pro-life voters when faced with the loss of health care coverage will vote for the candidate who has a solution to that problem. If the Democratic Party were to loudly and unapologetically stand up in support of a true universal health care plan that will cover everyone, I have no doubt they would easily win back this state, and Washington.
Sanders quite literally lost the Iowa caucus to Clinton over a coin toss. Trump narrowly beat Marco Rubio for third place just to come in a distant second to Ted Cruz. Trump won in November, not because he was popular, he just seemed like the least worst candidate for a majority of voters.
Even though I find it hard to rationalize the voting decisions of some, I think back to my first election I was able to vote in. I was a young supporter of Ross Perot, and the first candidate that I ever donated money was that of Morry Taylor. In the mid 1990’s Perot and Taylor were both very successful businessmen with no political experience and tried to run on a populist message. They were both just less bigoted and more articulate versions of Donald Trump. And I supported them at one point over the “establishment candidates”. They obviously did not gain much political traction at the time compared to similar candidates in 2016, but putting myself in the frame of mind of why I supported them then helps to understand where we are now.
Angry and frustrated voters will vote for an angry and frustrating candidate. For most people that I know, they align with the Democratic Party much more than Republicans even if they do not vote that way. Most of my Republican voting friends are not concerned about repealing gay marriage. They support wind and solar energy if it creates jobs. They support public schools. They support the idea that everyone should have access to health care in some form. Most agree that higher education is far too expensive. Most support universal background checks on firearms. Most people still support Planned Parenthood. They support modest increases in the minimum wage. We may not agree on everything, or how to solve some issues, but we still have much more in common than divisions.
I think the Democratic Party needs to realize that rural voters and urban voters are not much different. The Republicans have been successful at running on the issues that divide us, and the Democratic Party has too often failed at countering that message. The obvious result of those failures is why a state that voted for Obama by a large margin in 2008 followed up with voting for Trump 2016.
For me, attending town hall meetings and demonstrations like the Women’s March have been where I have channeled my anger and frustration. The number of people who have become more active and outspoken in the last 6 months gives me a lot of hope for the future. Right after Thanksgiving last year, I traveled to North Dakota with a group of veterans in solidarity with the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. What I truly found amazing with the thousands of veterans who were there was our differences in political opinions. This was not just a group of hippies wearing peace signs, but men and women who had served from Iraq to the Korean War of all political ideologies who agreed on one thing: violence by the state against peaceful protesters was not going to be tolerated. This too gave me an enormous amount of hope about the future.
Giving up my job last year to go back to school and pursue a degree was a risky decision. Between the loss of income and health care coverage, it has not been easy. My desire to get into either teaching or possibly even into politics or government will be a significant change compared to the last 20 years. I have a few years to go yet, but I felt I needed to do something in my life that could make a positive difference in my state, but without a degree my options are rather limited. Making a career out of finding ways to unite us when so many are devoted to dividing us might be the biggest challenge I will ever face. But doing nothing, especially with the current political atmosphere, was no longer an option for me. I am proud to call Iowa my home and fighting to make sure it is a state that future generations will also be proud to call home is a challenge we all should be honored to face head on. —
If you know someone who has a powerful rural voice, or you have one yourself, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.