After surviving some of the bloodiest combat in Afghanistan, the men of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment stayed connected on social media for support at home as they dealt with the fallout of war.
It was a rough transition to civilian life. Many were disillusioned about why they fought; others struggled with post-traumatic stress. Suicide stalked their ranks. Those close online connections offered something the veterans' health care system did not: common ground, understanding, friends ready to talk.
But the connections that held strong through all those troubles have been frayed to breaking by the partisan rancor of 2020. The Facebook group the men once relied on for support is now clogged with divisive memes and partisan conspiracy theories, disputes over policing and protests, and, of course, strong views on the president.
The din has driven a growing number of members to log off in dismay. Many say they still want to support their fellow Marines but cannot stand the toxic political traffic.
Party strategists and analysts tend to treat veterans as a homogeneous voting bloc, conservative-leaning and focused mainly on defense and benefits issues. But veterans are increasingly diverse in their outlook and deeply divided over the election.
The explosive issues of a strange year and the unconventional presidency of Donald Trump have pried veterans apart, just as they have divided families at kitchen tables and friends in now-canceled softball leagues. Like many other Americans, veterans can find it hard even to agree to disagree when so many see November as a critical turning point.
And those cracks are clear among the veterans of the 2/7. Many from the battalion have unfollowed longtime friends. Some have left the unit's online support group entirely.
"It hurts my soul to see all this childish drama," said Keith Branch, a former infantryman from the battalion. "Brothers that formed bonds in war, I see them becoming broken over childish arguments. I disconnect from it — I'm already dealing with post-traumatic stress. It hurts too much to look at it."
In 2015, veterans of the battalion's combat deployments had a suicide rate 14 times the national average, and Branch, who lives in Texas, helped to set up the rapid response network of volunteers who could race to the scene when a fellow battalion veteran was contemplating suicide. The group made several critical interventions to save lives.
Now, he said, members of the Facebook group are much less willing to open up amid the partisan hostility, and real discussion about the fallout of combat has grown rare.
"People are saying they are never going to talk to each other again," said Branch, who does not plan to vote this year. "I don't get it. We went to war to fight extremism. I don't understand why we can't find common ground."
Danny Kwan was one of many Marines who nearly killed himself after coming home. With the support of friends from the battalion, he graduated from college, interned for a congresswoman and became a firefighter. He has backed both Democrats and Republicans over the years. This year he plans to vote for Joe Biden, he said, primarily because he is wary of a second Trump term.
In 2016, exit polls showed that veterans backed Trump over Hillary Clinton by nearly 2 to 1. Veterans skew old and male and white, and so does the core of Trump's support.
As a candidate in 2016, Trump blasted the politicians and generals who had perpetuated the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and had ignored problems with veterans' health care, former Marine Alex McCoy said. "He picked the right enemies, he was yelling at the right people," McCoy said.
It is unclear now whether Trump will be able to muster as much support.