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The abortion ruling has troops and veterans speaking out, some for the first time

Marines and Navy sailors from the USS Bataan stand on the flight deck during their arrival for Fleet Week 2022 in New York. In the wake of the Supreme Court's historic term, some service members and veterans are speaking out.
Alexi J. Rosenfeld
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Getty Images
Marines and Navy sailors from the USS Bataan stand on the flight deck during their arrival for Fleet Week 2022 in New York. In the wake of the Supreme Court's historic term, some service members and veterans are speaking out.

For the first time in her life, Marine Corps Capt. Meleah Martin is refusing to wear American flag attire this Independence Day. Instead, she told her family that she will only wear pride colors and apparel. Not because she's unpatriotic – she's spent approximately 16 months deployed overseas as an F-18 pilot. But because she believes her constitutional rights are under attack.

Martin said it's been disheartening to witness liberties such as the right to protest or to cast a ballot come under attack in recent years. Those frustrations turned to devastation for her with the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, stripping away the constitutional right to an abortion. Martin hopes to someday start a family, but as someone who identifies as a lesbian, she's scared her right to marry and have children may also be in danger.

As a result of these fears and frustrations, she said she doesn't look at the American flag the way she used to.

"We swear an oath, 'To support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic' ... Well, it's time to start worrying about the domestic, because clearly we have more of a problem here than we do anywhere else," Martin said, noting that her views are her own, and not a reflection of her unit or the Marine Corps. "It's really disappointing when something like this happens, because, like, how do I defend that?"

And she's not alone.

The American military and its more than 1 million active-duty troops is traditionally seen as apolitical. But in the wake of a historic Supreme Court term that has shifted the nation to the right on everything from the Second Amendment and abortion, to the separation of church and state, service members and veterans on both sides of the political divide are finding it increasingly difficult to remain quiet.

For some, the shifts brought on by the court are cause for celebration. For others, their sentiments amount to a loss of trust and confidence in political leaders, and growing frustration with the country they are sworn to defend.

Black veterans are fighting to protect voting rights

Victor LaGroon is a chairman for the Black Veterans Empowerment Council, which works to better the lives of Black veterans across the country. He's worked with veterans and their communities to help protect their right to vote.
/ Victor LaGroon
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Victor LaGroon
Victor LaGroon is a chairman for the Black Veterans Empowerment Council, which works to better the lives of Black veterans across the country. He's worked with veterans and their communities to help protect their right to vote.

Before serving as a chairman for the Black Veterans Empowerment Council, Victor LaGroon served as an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army. His job at the time was to help gather information so that commanders could make methodical choices on the battlefield.

He uses the skills he acquired in the Army to better work with politicians in hopes of achieving equal access to benefits and protecting the rights of Black veterans. One of the campaigns he's passionate about is ensuring that Black veterans, as well as their families and communities, have the right to vote. He feels his work is more important than ever, given the growing number of states that have moved to restrict voter access since the 2020 election.

Victor LaGroon, left, chairman of the Black Veterans Empowerment Council, moderates a panel discussion with U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, right, last week in Washington, D.C.
/ Michael McCoy
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Michael McCoy
Victor LaGroon, left, chairman of the Black Veterans Empowerment Council, moderates a panel discussion with U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, right, last week in Washington, D.C.

"To have lost soldiers and sailors and Marines and airmen securing other people's right to vote, and then to come home and have your own government obstruct your right to vote is beyond repulsive. It is shameful. It's hateful, it should be illegal," LaGroon said. "We should not allow anyone American who wants to vote, who's qualified to vote, to not be voting. It is a part of the core of who we are."

LaGroon spoke about his grandfather, who was given one piece of advice after returning from World War II: "Don't get caught in that uniform in the South, because they'll hang you." Historically speaking, LaGroon said, Black service members have time and again been willing to sacrifice their lives in defense of a nation that doesn't care about them.

"If we're a nation of freedoms, why is it some freedoms are more valuable than others? That's the question," LaGroon said. "I'm saddened by what we've become. Because I know we're capable of being better."

Military women are confronting a post-Roe landscape

Meleah Martin, left, her girlfriend, Katelyn Carbajal, right, and Carbajal's daughter Harper, center, in Washington, D.C.
/ Meleah Martin
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Meleah Martin
Meleah Martin, left, her girlfriend, Katelyn Carbajal, right, and Carbajal's daughter Harper, center, in Washington, D.C.

Martin has never been one to draw attention to herself. As an active duty member of the military, she's always been careful about sharing her political beliefs with the public in order to maintain her image as an officer. However, she said the Supreme Court's decision to do away with federal abortion protections was the tipping point for her, and compelled her to speak out.

Over the years many people have asked her what it's like to be a woman in military aviation, a profession historically dominated by men. But that's never bothered her, because she's always seen her fellow pilots as family.

But in the wake of the court's abortion ruling last month, she said can't shake the feeling that she is on uneven ground.

"I've truly felt extremely equal to my peers and I've had a wonderful time in the military, but now, you know, I do I have one less right," Martin said. "And it is a right that has to do directly with my personal body."

When it comes to talk of the future, she and her girlfriend often discuss marriage and raising children. And though her partner already has a daughter, the two talk about artificial insemination and who would carry their child. But now she's concerned about what that could look like should a pregnancy put her or her partner's life at risk.

Martin is scared she may find herself at a duty station in a state where abortion is outlawed. If she and her partner needed to travel to have an abortion, Martin would need to have a leave request approved by her commanding officer, who might have differing views on the issue.

"I'm not saying that commanders don't have the interests of their sailors and Marines and soldiers in mind. But on, say the worst-case scenario, right, that commander has a very strong belief and is very much against abortion and knows what you're trying to do to take leave, they can just deny your leave without repercussion," she said. "I understand that that is like a very, very severe estimate, right? Or like, that is the worst-case scenario. But it's not necessarily out of the cards."

An additional fear that weighs on Martin is whether she and her partner will be able to get married in the not-too-distant future.

In a concurring opinion to the Supreme Court's abortion ruling, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the court's legal rationale in overturning Roe could also be applied to overturn other major cases, including the court's decision to legalize gay marriage.

His words shook members of the LGBTQ+ community, including Martin, who now worry that the conservative majority on the high court could strike down their right to marry.

"We thought The Handmaid's Tale was, you know, just an entertaining show, but we're honestly headed back towards that direction, you know what I mean?" Martin said. "It's just sad to see. It's crazy."

Conservative soldiers also feel the need to speak out

Natalia Ketcham and her husband, Dallas Ketcham. She has always been against abortion and was glad to see the Supreme Court's decision last month. Although the conversations surrounding abortion are polarizing, she hopes people can come together to talk about it and other important issues.
/ Natalia Ketcham
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Natalia Ketcham
Natalia Ketcham and her husband, Dallas Ketcham. She has always been against abortion and was glad to see the Supreme Court's decision last month. Although the conversations surrounding abortion are polarizing, she hopes people can come together to talk about it and other important issues.

Twenty-three-year-old Natalia Ketcham has two months left on her enlistment with the Coast Guard, after which she plans to attend school to become a dental hygienist. She's originally from Miami, but is stationed outside of San Francisco. Like Martin and LaGroon, she too is concerned about the state of things, albeit for different reasons.

Ketcham has been against abortion since she was a pre-teen. Her stance doesn't stem from her Roman Catholic beliefs, she explained, but from her love of life itself.

"I firmly believe that abortion is not a constitutional right, we all have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, first and foremost, life," she said.

When the justices voted to return abortion laws to individual states, she was elated. However, as a staunch anti-abortion advocate, she believes there's more work to be done.

"I think that this is a great first step in advancing our generations, our future generations, and I think that's great. But we are nowhere near done," Ketcham said. "So as happy as I am, I am not complacent with where we are at. And I think that's important for pro-lifers to really understand, is that our struggle is not done."

Ketcham said she stands against abortion across the board, including in cases of rape or incest. Her belief that abortions should be illegal stems from what she sees as an unborn child's right to life, which in her opinion, supersedes the right to an abortion.

She's also against the argument that abortion should be legal in instances where the mother may be forced to choose between her life and that of the unborn child.

"If I were put in ... that situation or scenario, I would proudly give up my life for that [of] my child," Ketcham said.

Instead of funding clinics where abortions are performed, she said she wishes the funds would be redirected towards women's health care, adoption services and child support initiatives.

The conversations surrounding abortion are polarizing to say the least, Ketcham admitted, but she also believes they're important conversations to have. She hopes people can come together to talk about issues that are dividing the country to try and bridge a nation divided.

Extremism and the public's view of veterans

Members of the Oath Keepers at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in military-style attire. One-in-five of those charged during the attack on the Capitol were veterans, which leaves some veterans worried about how that will affect how the public views them.
Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
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AP
Members of the Oath Keepers at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in military-style attire. One-in-five of those charged during the attack on the Capitol were veterans, which leaves some veterans worried about how that will affect how the public views them.

Investigations into the January 6 attacks revealed that approximately 1-in-5 defendants charged for the siege of the Capitol were veterans, NPR previously reported. LaGroon said the news troubled him because he worried those individuals could be seen by some to be a representation of the veteran population.

The thought of veterans across the country joining extremist groups or supporting white supremacy hurts all veterans, LaGroon said, which is why it's important that those who served stand up and speak out.

"If we're not giving people an alternative perspective of who we are, people aren't going to want to hire veterans, they're not going to want us as neighbors, they're not going to want us to marry into their families, they're not going to want to be our classmates in school, because, you know, why? Someone has hijacked our image," he said. "Now we're kind of stuck trying to convey and convince people, 'Oh, no, we're actually better than that.' Are we? Because we got to show it."

Service members and veterans can be found on both sides of the political spectrum, LaGroon said. But most veterans, he believes, find themselves in the middle, often playing peacekeeper between veterans with strong views on the left and the right.

And though it's easier to sit back and remain disheartened about what's taking place across the nation than speak up and risk ridicule, LaGroon said, there's too much at stake to let that happen.

"I think that we have to recognize that we're in the fight, and we have to get in the fight, right? And look, a lot of us are tired, man. You know what I mean?" LaGroon said. "We wore the uniform, we came home, we're acclimated — we got it together somehow — and we're just trying to enjoy life. And time and time again, thing after thing, we keep seeing our nation needs us more today than it did when we were in uniform."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.