Leader Spotlight: Alex Vazquez
As part of United Religions Initiative North America’s #TangibleHope campaign, Veterans for American Ideals is recognizing veteran leaders who are continuing their service by building unity and standing up for American values. Through a series of interviews, we’re asking VFAI leaders to share more about how their service shaped them and what responsibility they feel veterans have to speak up on issues that relate to our national ideals.
Today’s interview is with Alex Vazquez, a U.S. Air Force veteran, law student, and the son of Nicaraguan refugees.
This interview has been edited for length.
Tell us about your military service.
I served in active duty with the United States Air Force from September of 2004 through December 2008. I was assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA) site in San Antonio, Texas, where I worked in intelligence support in a joint-service site. Starting in January of 2009, I went into the Reserves while I finished my undergraduate degree in Political Science and Psychology at University of Miami. I worked in the 920th Communications Flight/Rescue Wing, where we provided readiness and communication support for the combat search and rescue squadrons at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida. After I graduated and moved to Washington, D.C., I finished my enlistment obligation in 2012. I am now in the process of joining the Reserves again, as a paralegal in the JAG corp with hopes of eventually becoming a JAG officer after I finish law school.
How did your service shape the person you are today?
I think because of my early exposure to the major national security issues happening around the world—and in some cases, issues that crossed over into the realm of human rights—it made me hyper vigilant of the importance of public service.
My time in the military really influenced the way I perceive the significance and importance of public service but also of how well we equip our public servants to succeed and how we treat them as a society. Everything I’ve aimed to do after my service in the military has been, in some way or another, motivated by how I believe I can best contribute to the betterment of our society, as opposed to personal gain, and how to strengthen our capacity for public service.
As a veteran, what sort of responsibility do you feel to speak up on issues that relate to American ideals?
I believe the post 9/11 environment created a space that allowed for a collective sense of patriotism because we were on the receiving end of a senseless, brutal, and hateful attack where innocent lives were taken, literally for the world to see. In the midst of an environment of fear, many people stepped forward and enlisted during a tumultuous time of uncertainty. Many people enlisted knowing the possibility that enlistment may end up costing them their lives and, for many, it did. The war in Iraq did not go as smooth as many predicted it would. For many Americans, this created a sense of vulnerability and insecurity.
In Psychology, a common defense mechanism known as “Reaction Formation” occurs when stressful or anxiety-producing impulses or emotions manifest themselves in exaggerated opposite sentiments. I believe the generation that is old enough to remember 9/11 experienced a collective form of this defense mechanism. Because things did not go as planned in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and because terrorist activities since 9/11 have seemingly increased, there has been sense of insecurity and vulnerability that has manifested itself in exaggerated forms of nationalism. This atmosphere has created a very low tolerance for critical thinking and diverse opinions. Many have sought to hijack the sentiment of patriotism and have blurred the lines between patriotism and authoritarianism.
To me, this runs counter to the American ideals that we have historically held sacred. The inherent liberties we hold sacred that allow us to be freethinking citizens that strengthen our democracy should continue to be protected. As a veteran, I feel a sense of responsibility to speak up when that liberty and the ability to be a critical, freethinking citizen is threatened. My dad once told me that what separates the United States from other countries is our respect for the Constitution. In that same sentiment, I understand why we have to swear an oath to defend it when we enlist into the military and why we should continue to do so after our military service is done, even if it’s just a matter of speaking out when no one else is doing so.
Tell me about one issue related to those ideals that is of particular importance or concern to you right now. What are you doing about it?
Right now there is an environment that is sensitive to any criticism that can be deemed as unpatriotic or ungrateful to our nation. As a result, anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiment can run freely and mostly unquestioned. It is unpopular to speak up in the defense of those that are vulnerable, marginalized, or unfairly demonized. One of my favorite quotes is from James Madison, in which he says, “If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.”
I believe there is an attempt to do just that at this very moment by spreading misinformation, outright lies, fear, and confusion. That’s why I feel it is important that we speak up for refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants. Naturally, nobody chooses to be a refugee or an asylum seeker. Ideally, our respective homes provide a sense of security that is enough to keep us there. That is why I believe in the overall mission of the World Bank, where I currently work, to eradicate extreme poverty around the world.
However, when certain conditions arise that force people out of their country, particularly if we had a hand in those conditions, we should not abandon our tradition of offering refuge to those that require it. We can do this without compromising our national security. Those who believe otherwise have little faith in the men and women of our armed forces, intelligence community, and federal law enforcement.
This is why I am also currently enrolled in law school at the University of the District of Columbia – David A. Clarke School of Law pursuing a curriculum in public policy & public service. As a part of my law school curriculum, I have volunteered 40 hours with Human Rights First’s Refugee Representation department, providing pre-legal screenings in Spanish, English, and French for asylum seekers. I have continued to remain active with Human Rights First by participating with Veterans for American Ideals.
What would you say to other veterans about the role that they can play in these issues as citizens?
I would first invite them to speak with members of Veterans for American Ideals so that they can speak with veterans that hold a particular set of views. They may or may not agree with them but we’re all a part of the same community and it’s important for us to engage with each other. Furthermore, I would encourage veterans to engage with as many different types of people as they can. Since we all swore to defend the American public at one point or another, we should get out and meet as many different types of people that make up the American demographic. In doing so, we can become more educated and informed citizens. Lastly, I would encourage all veterans to get involved in their local community, whether it’s just a few hours at your local homeless shelter or volunteering with your local church. Whatever it may be, if we each contribute a little, our overall impact in this nation will be great and our collective sense of humanity will be strengthened.