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Altman: Veterans played key role in Jolly’s District 13 victory

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Published:   |   Updated: March 16, 2014 at 08:52 PM

For years, Scott Neil tromped around Iraq and Afghanistan teaching villagers the rudiments of governance, among many other things. Jerry Lavely gathered intelligence at 70,000 feet while piloting the venerable U2 spy plane.

Both of these guys were key volunteers with and advisors to Republican David Jolly, who fought a pitched two-month battle with Democrat Alex Sink in the special election to replace the late Congressman Bill Young as the representative from District 13.

Having known these guys for years, it came as no surprise Tuesday night when I was sitting at the Tampa Theatre, waiting for Marcus Luttrell’s Patriot Tour to take the stage, and looked down at my iPhone to see a text alert from TBO.com announcing Jolly’s victory.

Hours earlier, I had a conversation with a colleague about the outcome of what would turn out to be a very close election that saw Jolly win with 48.4 percent of the votes compared to Sink’s 46.6 percent.

My colleague predicted Sink would sneak by Jolly.

I had a different read. I had no skin in the game, don’t live in Pinellas and never support any candidates, but I saw Jolly spending a lot of time with people I know at functions that were not media events. So I figured veterans would play a role.

My after-action assessment confirms this.

With so many veterans in the district — as many as 100,000 according to Lavely — and with guys like he and Neil on board helping to marshal those forces, I posit that the veterans in large measure helped push Jolly over the top.

It is an assessment with which Jolly concurs.

“I fully agree with that,” Jolly said in a phone call from Washington the day after being sworn in. “But, really it was not a political strategy. It speaks to my history of working with veterans and veterans organizations.”

And their turnout “was definitely a factor, no question,” says Jolly. “We know the density of veterans in Pinellas County and District 13. No question that we had sufficient votes from the veteran community to put us over the top on Tuesday.”

Not surprisingly, Neil and Lavely also share my theory.

Tapping into the network of veterans was a natural offshoot of his Special Forces training and long experience on the battlefield and in headquarters, says Neil, a retired Green Beret master sergeant.

“It’s what we were taught the last 11 years,” says Neil. “How to organize at the lowest level and to take a strategic narrative and have a local effect.”

Veterans in the district, says Neil, “wanted to get excited but you have to reach them and get them to leave their comfort zone and participate.”

The punditry about the role of Obamacare in the election — Jolly of course was opposed, Sink in favor — has been overplayed, says Neil.

“Remember, the older age veterans aren’t worried about Obamacare,” he says. “They already have Medicare and VA health care. They were more excited about the attacks on their VA and cost-of-living benefits.”

It was also natural for veterans to support Jolly, says Lavely, given his long association with Young and his active support for the veteran community and frequent visits to see the wounded at military hospitals.

“What worked really well was we were all like-minded individuals, who all understood David’s passion and concern for the issues.”

The Jolly effort “coalesced very quickly,” says Lavely. “There was a short window of time to mobilize support for a guy that can continue the legacy of Bill Young.”

That message reverberated, says Lavely.

“Father Bob Swick and the other Vietnam era Vets who are serving each other every day, taking each other to the VA, and volunteering to ensure they are taken care of” pitching in as well, says Lavely. “They steadily passed the word that David will continue the service that Bill Young demonstrated to them for so many years.”

For Neil, who also served on the Commander’s Advisory and Assistance Team in Afghanistan and in Tampa as the senior enlisted advisor of the U.S. Special Operations Command’s Interagency Task Force, working local-level politics and offering advice to senior leaders is old hat.

“We liked Dave for personal reasons, because he helped us,” says Neil. “Therefore, we are loyal. Then we started using our skill sets to build messages that resonate to a target audience.”

Neil likened the approach to the Village Stability Operations in Afghanistan and other efforts where troops identified community leaders and then targeted them for outreach efforts.

“What we did in Iraq and Afghanistan is that we dedicated our time and our social contacts,” says Neil. “We are excited for this person. If I am going to be here, can I get you here, too?”

The outreach was not just to older veterans. Neil says younger veterans, just out of the service, were energized, too. A dynamic that is key for a group of men and women who, while helping Iraqis and Afghans learn about democracy, are actively discouraged from engaging in domestic politics because of the relationship between the military and the civilian leadership it serves.

As well as things worked out for Jolly, and as much as it might serve as a lesson learned for other politicians, Neil says he has no interest in hitting the campaign trail.

“I would not put my family through what it takes to run for office and get assassinated 40 times,” he says. “I had many conversations with Iraqis and Afghans saying, ‘you are here to teach me about politics? You should start with your country.’”

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After seeing the results of the District 13 special election, I settled in for the Patriot Tour. It featured a couple Navy SEALs, including a DEVGRU member who was part of the team that took out the Somali pirates that commandeered the Maersk Alabama cargo ship in 2009. The Tom Hanks film “Captain Phillips” is based on that incident. Also on the tour were a Ranger who lost his leg to an IED and Taya Kyle, wife of the murdered SEAL Chris Kyle, whose life story became the book “American Sniper.” All gave poignant portrayals of life in service and how it affects loved ones. It was headlined by Luttrell, whose story about barely living through an insurgent attack in Afghanistan that left his SEAL teammates and 16 other special operators dead became the “Lone Survivor” book and movie. He talked about the horrors of war, albeit it in a down-to-earth, funny Texas way.

At his side during the Tampa Theatre performance — the first of an 11-city nationwide tour — was a service dog, Mr. Rigby, from Southeastern Guide Dogs, a service dog provider based in Palmetto.

If the noise and traffic from this weekend’s AirFest — officially called the MacDill Air Force Base Presents Tampa Bay AirFest 2014 — is too much for you, there’s another worthy event.

Saturday, there will be a walkathon to raise money for Southeastern Guide Dogs, which has a Paws for Patriots program that provides service dogs to veterans, like Luttrell, with wounds seen and unseen.

It will be held for the first time at Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park, 601 Old Water Street, Tampa, between 8:30 a.m. and noon. There will be 3K walk, food trucks, vendors and music. Bring your dog.

For more information, go to http://guidedogswalkathon.org/locations/tampa/ or call (941) 729-5665.

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There were no deaths announced by the Pentagon last week.

There have been 2,302 U.S. troops killed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation’s longest war.

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