Leader Spotlight: Chris Purdy
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 Chris Purdy, a U.S. Army National Guard veteran who served in Iraq. Chris currently works in public education, and leads the Veterans for American Ideals team in Atlanta, GA.
Tell me about your military service.
I was in the Army National Guard. I did four years in New York, then four years in Virginia. I was a combat engineer and I got out at E-5, Sgt.
I was in college during the invasion of Iraq. At first, I was in the streets protesting. I was really against the initial invasion. A number of experiences changed my perception, though I never, even today, felt that the war was justified. I can sum up my thought process in one of anecdote, though. One night while I was in college I went to the bar and I talked to a friend of a friend who had just gotten back. He was having a hard time with it, and I felt guilty.
It made me realize that as an able-bodied person of means, I should be doing my part in national service, rather than let others do it for me.
Sometime after that I was in the student union building and thinking about what was next. There was a National Guard recruitment table on one side of the room and a Peace Corps recruitment table on the other. I picked the Guard because I thought I could be more productive there. I originally wanted to be a medic because I wanted to help people, but the recruiter told me that what the Army really needed were combat engineers. She told me that as a combat engineer, I would go in after the fighting and build roads and houses. I didn’t do any research, I just signed my name. At basic training, I find out that what combat engineers do is the exact opposite: they shape the battlefield before and during combat, primarily through demolitions. So in my case, the old adage that recruiters lie was very apt.
After basic training I was assigned to a National Guard Armory outside of Buffalo, New York. My unit had just returned from deployment in Iraq, so we went on a rotation as what was/is called a CERF-P mission. We trained as search and rescue first responders in the event of another 9/11 style attack.
After four years, I moved to Washington, D.C. Then I transferred to an Engineer company in Fredericksburg, Virginia. After a year there we deployed in support of the final stages of the war in Iraq. While in Iraq I was part of a Convoy Escort Team which accompanied vehicles from FOB Adder, outside Nasiriya, up to Baghdad and back. We left in December 2011, days before we transitioned full security back to the Iraqis.
How did your service shape the person you are today?
It made me much more focused on action, on getting something done. It taught me that if you want to have a meaningful life, then the only thing that matters is action. If you’re not actually willing to go out there and do something to make change, then your words matter very little. I had always tried to hold myself accountable, but the military gave me a much clearer example of what it means to do something.
As a veteran, what sort of responsibility do you feel to speak up on issues that relate to American ideals?
In today’s America, veterans’ voices carry a weight in society. When we are discussing policies or problems in our country, people look to veterans as a voice of legitimacy. I think about that often, that if I don’t use that weight for something good, I’m wasting it. The American public listens to us and it’s up to us to use our voices to offer useful perspectives. Today it often seems there is a lack of rational perspective and rational thought, so anything we can do to encourage that is important.
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?
With VFAI, our stance on refugees and immigration, and promoting the concept that we need to be open to people who are fleeing violence and terror—especially those fleeing from violence we started—is very important to me.
We went to Iraq and we destabilized that region. Outside of the Middle East, this is a pattern that the United States has engaged in throughout our history. For example, over the past fifty years we have provided weapons in South America, and people are continually fleeing that region. We have to take ownership of the results of our actions as a nation. We have to do something meaningful.
Americans love to sit around and say that we are the shining city on the hill, but when it comes to being action oriented, to solving problems, to opening our arms to people, we have failed throughout history.
I feel an obligation to use my voice for those our society sees as the “other,” or for those who don’t have a voice. My father and his family left Northern Ireland because of the conflict and lack of opportunity there. When I go back to visit, I see the lasting damage that was done because people were unwilling to welcome an integrated society, and refused to work towards the common good.
I find it frustrating that some of the loudest anti-immigrant voices in America today come from those whose ancestors came to this country under duress. You can look at a segment of the American population which claims Scotch-Irish ancestry, for example. This past election showed that demographic voted against welcoming people fleeing the very same economic conditions and discriminatory practices that their grandparents and great-grandparents fled a hundred years ago. In this country we have a history of treating every new immigrant group as the “other,” and then forgetting about it as soon as our group becomes assimilated and a new group starts to come in.
In Atlanta, I’m working with a Veterans for American Ideals team on these issues. We’ve met with staff of Senators Isaacson and Purdue. We’re partnering with other organizations, like Standing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC). We’re networking with immigrant communities in the area to support them as they need it, so when they’re advocating or protesting, they know that they have an ally.
What would you say to other veterans about the role that they can play in these issues as citizens?
I would remind other veterans that your service didn’t end when you took off the uniform. Just because you don’t have a PT test every day doesn’t mean you stop running. We took an oath to uphold the Constitution. That Constitution says that the people who come here have rights—and those rights still need defending. You need to get out there and do the work.
I’d also remind veterans of this: after WWII veterans dominated public life, and they made their communities a better place. They grew cities and suburbs, they built roads, they fought for civil rights and against poverty. America really did become better because those veterans were active in public life. When we talk about making America great again, veterans can do that through their service. We have an opportunity to use our sense of duty to improve our community and make our nation a more welcoming and fair place to live. Our generation of veterans that has seen nothing but consistent conflict, but if we could take the dedication to service that we’ve put in during these last 16 years of conflict and instead apply it to service here at home, we could really make an impact.