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A Homefront Mission for Iraq War Vets

Emily Heath and Angela Hoefke are ready for their latest mission
Emily Heath and Angela Hoefke are ready for their latest mission

For Angela Hoefke, returning to the comfort of home from a tour of duty in Iraq wasn't easy.

ANGELA HOEFKE: I just came back very restless, I was used to doing everything every day. I pretty much just had to find a job right away so that I didn't go crazy.

That's why she's here at the Lonnie Burton Recreation Center on Cleveland's near east side, listening to Charvelle Metcalf of the Cuyahoga County Elections Board, who sort of sounds like a drill sergeant, putting the troops through their paces.

CHARVELLE METCALF (to trainees): Remove the tag from the emergency ballot compartment. Remove the seal from the emergency ballot compartment. I'll wait till someone does that.

Angela Hoefke and a couple dozen other Northeast Ohio vets have found a new mission in Operation Forward Democracy, recently introduced by Ohio's Secretary of State.

JENNIFER BRUNNER: This is a pilot program through Tri-C as an effort to recruit veterans to continue their service or carry on the mission and serve as poll workers.

Jennifer Brunner says, if successful, the program may be expanded across the state in future elections, and possibly go nationwide. It was hatched by Cuyahoga Community College's Director of Veterans' Services, Rick DeChant.

RICK DeCHANT: The student veterans wanted to be part of something bigger. They've all had this life-changing experience serving overseas, most of them, and they wanted to continue on that pace.

After hearing stories about poll worker shortages, DeChant says he started putting two and two together and proposed the idea to the Secretary of State's office. A veteran of Iraq and Kuwait, DeChant knew that these recent returnees had experience that made them uniquely qualified for the job.

RICK DeCHANT: Getting up, as we like to call it in the service, at "O-dark thirty in the morning --- and the "O" stands for "Oh my God is it early." To put in a 14 hour day for these men and women is nothing new.

Sergeant Emily Heath looks like she's barely out of high school, but a year ago she was a combat medic in Iraq and she spent a lot of time in emergency rooms built into Blackhawk helicopters.

EMILY HEATH: You miss that adrenaline rush that was there. Going to see action movies wasn't quite the same anymore [laughs].

Her pulse probably won't pound quite as much setting up voting machines, but she likes the idea of working once again with fellow vets.

EMILY HEATH: The sense of community in the military world is really tight, so I just want to bring that over to the civilian side.

Emily Heath is a biology major in the pre-med program at Tri-C, and Angela Hoefke is studying criminal justice. But, for the next couple days, they'll have a different focus.

CHARVELLE METCALF( poll worker training, cont'd): Remember the three principles are: record…keep…and replace. Place these seals in the clear plastic envelope….[UNDER]

Hoefke says she brings more than combat readiness to this new job.

ANGELA HOEFKE: I'm older now, I understand more about the world and politics and what an impact the next president can make. I kind of want to stand out and make a voice, you know?

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.