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Iraqi ballots honor fallen Marines

Hickory resident provides another memory for Gold Star families

HICKORY - Russ Meade knows the power of a ballot.

Click above link for photo.

By Larry Clark | Hickory Daily Record
Published: May 11, 2009

He saw it as a Marine during Iraq's first free election.

It's evident as a civilian when he presents a Gold Star family with an Iraqi ballot.

Gold Star families are those that have suffered the loss of a loved one in the military.

Presentations are always moving, Meade said.

"They are truly appreciative. The ballots are a reminder that their son or daughter fought for freedom in Iraq, and their sacrifice was not in vain."

The ballots are from the Jan. 30, 2005, election when 58 percent of eligible Iraqi voters went to the polls in spite of intimidation from insurgents.

Meade has photos of jubilant Iraqis with American troops. And he has photos of Gold Star families, somber but full of appreciation for the ballots that commemorate the service of their loved ones.

Operation Freedom Ballot, the name Meade gave his outreach effort, was not planned.

Meade had been out of the Marine Corps for 10 years, but he re-enlisted for the express purpose of serving in Iraq.

"I felt it was my patriotic duty," he said.

Meade was stationed in Fallujah, at the time a hot spot of violence, when the first Iraqi election was held.

When his hitch was up, he returned to his job at Piedmont Vending. He brought two framed ballots with him.

He was a liaison between the Iraqis and the Marines monitoring the elections to protect the Iraqis from violence or tampering.

That's how he was able to secure the ballots.

Wanting to do do more for the Marines overseas, Meade started Covert Threads, a sock distributing company.

The Hickory company buys socks locally. They're custom-made to withstand the rigors of field duty.

Meade would go to apparel and military supply conventions and take the ballots with him as an eye-catcher.

That's when a Gold Star father approached him and offered to buy the ballots.

Meade had to say no, but he contacted a friend in the State Department and was able to obtain more ballots.

The father got his ballot, with the help of Marine Parents, and Operation Freedom Ballot was born.

"That ballot is the essence of what it is all about. All of those purple fingers meant that my son, and all of the other fallen, did not die in vain," the father wrote to Meade and Marine Parents.

"There is no way that I can even come close to expressing my gratitude," he said. His son was killed in Iraq in 2004.

Meade has presented 12 commemorative ballots so far. He is searching for additional sources for original ballots. It's a finite supply, but he hopes to add to his supply.

He doesn't want to say no again.

Operation Freedom Ballot is under the Marine Parents umbrella. It's a group of programs for Marines and their families. Meade became actively involved when he was given permission make presentations at a convention.

He's now a board member.

The network includes The Care Package Project, Team Marine Parents and Operation PAL. There are several more organizations within Marine Parents.

The connection enables Meade to accept support for Operation Freedom Ballot.

He makes no money from the effort. "It's all about the men and women who serve. It's not about me. Any support goes to obtaining, framing and presenting the ballots."

Covert Threads, meanwhile, has branched out to base-layer garments. They're supplied by a Pinehurst manufacturer.

"Everything is 100 percent North Carolina-made," Meade said.

The apparel is sold in Marine base exchanges and several Navy exchanges.

But Operation Freedom Ballot gets much of his energy and spirit.

"The ballot represents freedom and peace. I have given them to families who support the war and to those who oppose it. All the families are grateful for a reminder that their loved ones accomplished their mission."

The power of the ballot has worked wonders in Iraq, Meade said, and he is determined to reach every Gold Star family he can with a keepsake of a brave Marine and the fight for freedom.

His ballot hangs on the wall of his office at Piedmont Vending.

"It reminds me of why I was there. It reminds me that my friends didn't die for nothing."