The first time Capt. Jon Kuniholm made a public statement in support of any political candidate, it was to a historic crowd of 84,000 in Denver's Mile High Stadium at the Democratic National Convention.
"The best way you could thank me for my service and sacrifice, the best way we can ensure a safer and stronger America," he said, "is to vote for Barack Obama." (A video of his speech is available here.)
Kuniholm is a Marine reservist from Durham who lost his right arm below the elbow in Iraq during a 2005 ambush on the Euphrates River. He says the war was poorly planned and badly executed since the beginning, and the nation's military resources should have been focused on Afghanistan. Most of all, he has passionately refuted John McCain's argument that such dissent dishonors the sacrifices veterans have made.
"When service members take an oath of office, they're offering up their service to their country and to all Americans, not to the policy decisions of the leaders in whose employ they ultimately are. I think this is the source of the confusion," Kuniholm says. "I'm in the awkward position of speaking as both a citizen and a service member. Ultimately, we are both. Marines don't pick our wars and our mission, but we do help pick our commander in chief."
Jumping into the political fray was a step he did not take lightly.
"Most of us in the military are apolitical, which is both a requirement and part of the culture," Kuniholm says. "At some point, my acknowledgement of the importance of this election began to outweigh any concerns I had about the risk of making a political statement."
Since he made that leap, Kuniholm has campaigned hard for Obama, appearing at numerous events in North Carolina.
At an Oct. 28 event in Fayetteville, he pointed out that Obama received a 90 percent rating from Disabled American Veterans, which scores candidates on how often they favor veterans' interests. McCain received a score of 35 percent.
"There are a lot of people in North Carolina who are intimately involved in the military and the consequences of the decisions that we make," he says.
Less than a month after Kuniholm's arm was amputated, four members of his platoon were killed—young men who had been under his command. Because he had been sent home, Kuniholm attended all four funerals, presenting the U.S. flag to some of the Marines' parents.
Kuniholm's story, and the earnest manner in which he tells it, have caught the attention of national media.
The November issue of GQ features a group photograph including Kuniholm, his hook visible beneath the cuff of a tailored suit, alongside double-amputee Tammy Duckworth and other members of the Next Generation Veterans for Obama. His convention appearance made it into The New Yorker's Talk of the Town.
He's also taken his message to YouTube, with a video titled "Dear Sen. McCain," in which he says he saw the "disaster" of the Iraq war firsthand.
"Your supporters claim that saying this disrespects my service and the sacrifices of my fellow Marines," Kuniholm says in the video. "Those who say this dishonors our democracy by trying to speak for all of us [...] Marines do not choose their missions, but most would proudly serve all over again. The sense of duty, sir, does not make your decisions good ones."
Kuniholm knew his response would expose him to one of the worst kinds of public criticism: anonymous online comments. "You are a SORRY EXCUSE FOR AN AMERICAN!" one posted on YouTube.
"I seriously doubt that any of those people would say that sort of stuff if they had to say it to my face," Kuniholm says. But he approaches the online media war as another duty to serve. He jokes that if Rush Limbaugh attacked him, it could help drive up hits to the video, getting the message out to more people.
When interviewed for a 2006 Independent article about the startup firm Tackle Design, Kuniholm was distinctly apolitical in discussing his experience of the war. He is passionate about improving the design of prosthetics, but he clearly didn't want to politicize his work with complaints about veterans' health care or his opinions of the war.
At a prosthetics conference in January, he met prominent vets, including a few who had begun to publicly support Obama's policies. Later, Kuniholm was among several vets invited to meet with the Democratic presidential nominee at a national security summit in Washington, D.C.
"[Obama], in a very open way, let us know what he thought about his policies for the war, this justification for this well-reasoned drawing down, which I thought was an extremely honest and practical assessment of what our options were at that time. Then he listened to what we had to say about all of it, and there was a lot of varied experience in the room."
Kuniholm shared with the campaign an op-ed piece he'd written in support of Obama, which became the first draft of the speech Kuniholm would eventually give in Denver.
Tackle Design recently closed its Durham office, but Kuniholm is working with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on a prosthetics design project, while finishing his doctorate in biomedical engineering at Duke.
"I really do feel like this is perhaps the most critical election of my lifetime, and this is the candidate I have felt most strongly about in my lifetime," he says. "If we arrived at Nov. 5 and Senator Obama were to lose by 10 votes in North Carolina or by a handful of electoral votes, I don't think I could stand to have sat back and not participated."