This U.S. Election Feels All Too Similar to Iraq's Fraught and Violent One in 2005 | Opinion

I've had many sleepless nights these past months. This election season has put on full display the polarization of America. Recent polling shows that 71 percent of Americans are concerned about widespread violence after the election. At the same time 91 percent say it is important to live in a country that is governed democratically and 88 percent feel voting is a way they can improve the country.

However, my confidence in my country and my fellow citizens does not waver. We are, after all, a people who are united in our love of country. Moreover, we have conducted free and fair elections for nearly 250 years, through the Civil War, pandemics, two World Wars, and many other challenges. I know my local election officials and have seen their tireless work to man the polling stations, and to properly count every ballot cast. I'd trust them with my life. I trust them with our democracy as well. I hope we have the collective patience that is needed at this moment.

The most memorable election of my life was December 15, 2005. It wasn't an American election, but rather the parliamentary election in Iraq. I was on my fourth of five deployments there, and we were working to ensure that the elections were free and fair. People around the world remember that election because of the purple fingers – Iraqi citizens proudly displayed their ink-stained fingers as proof that they voted.

I remember feeling two contradictory emotions. First was the enormous pride and joy in watching so many people vote for the first time in their lives after suffering under Saddam Hussein's dictatorial rule. And the second was trepidation – that there would be violence, that calls of fraud would overwhelm what we hoped would be a free and fair process, and that Iraqi citizens would not have the patience to wait for all the votes to be counted.

A week after the election, Sunni and Shiite factions howled that election fraud was rampant, and demonstrations of as many as 20,000 people broke out. Violence soon followed, with car bombs and attacks on both U.S. and Iraqi officials. The full results were not released until more than five weeks after election day, but the results held, and the elected parliament served for four years.

I remember thinking how fortunate I was to be an American, and how proud I was to live in a country where I could mail in my absentee ballot (which I had done for every election since I joined the military in 1989) without worrying whether it would be counted or fearing that violence might follow the election. I personally knew the county clerk in my hometown. She always asked where I was stationed or deployed when I called. She took a personal interest in making sure I received my absentee request and follow-on ballot in a timely fashion.

I see the tragic irony in the fact that I have the same worries about my own country's election aftermath that I did about the election in Iraq nearly fifteen years ago. I think about many of my comrades still wearing the cloth of our nation who cast their ballots from faraway places – Afghanistan, at sea in the Pacific, or other far off places. Their ballots must be counted as well, and I'm perfectly willing to wait a few more days if that's what it takes.

I am also more determined than I have ever been to play my part in creating a more perfect union. It's why I have joined with the Veterans and Citizens Initiative, a nonpartisan group of veterans, military families, and veteran and family support organizations to do our part to repair the damage of polarization and work to mend these divisions.

If there is any lesson to be learned from these past months, it is the realization that loving our country is hard work. Our duty today is to shore up the hard-fought trust in our elections and not take it for granted. It is to shun any hints of violence and work toward healing after a difficult and hard-fought election. In the end, we must know without a doubt that we are blessed, that we all owe our country and our fellow citizens, and that if we are to be that shining city on a hill, it will require each of us sacrificing for that ideal. America is only going to be what we make it.

Scott Cooper spent twenty years on active duty in the Marine Corps, serving five tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.