Leader Spotlight: Erich Almonte
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 Erich Almonte, a U.S. Army veteran who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Erich is a lawyer in Houston and currently represents Special Immigrant Visa recipients and their families pro bono. He also co-leads the burgeoning Vets for American Ideals Houston team.
Tell me about your military service.
I served as an Army Infantry officer from May 2005 to April 2014. I was twice stationed at Ft. Benning, GA for the Infantry Officer Basic Course, Ranger School, and Maneuver Captains Career Course. I did my platoon leader, scout platoon leader, and executive officer time at Ft. Campbell, KY. Then I was a brigade planner, company commander and headquarters company commander at 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment in Vilseck, Germany. In my last assignment, I taught ROTC at George Mason University in VA. I did tours in Samarra, Iraq from September 2007 to Nov. 2008 and Zabul, Afghanistan from May 2010 to May 2011.
I joined the Army because of September 11. I was a senior in college in Washington, D.C. at the time. I could see the smoke from the Pentagon. I decided to join the Army that day. My country had been attacked and I was going to do something about it, just like so many able-bodied people did in the wake of Pearl Harbor. I knew that hundreds of thousands of young men and women soon would be sent into harm’s way to defend our country and I was going to go with them. But while I joined the Army because of the September 11 attacks, I stayed in because of the soldiers I served with.
How did your service shape the person you are today?
Military service confirmed my optimism about America and my fellow Americans. I served with soldiers from all over the country. And no matter who they were or where they came from, they shared two qualities: selflessness and ingenuity.
I have always loved America because of the ideals and values on which it is based, however imperfectly we may realize them at any given time. But I was struck, again and again, by what soldiers could do to accomplish the mission and what they would do for each other in the process.
When we put these individuals in a values-based organization like the Army, led them well, trained and resourced them (even just a little), gave them a goal and then let them go, they always came together to do something amazing beyond just accomplishing the mission. And they would do anything for the people to their left and right, regardless of race, religion, or political party. I think this is because of service and sacrifice. There is nothing like shared sacrifice and a hard job done well to bring people together.
In this way, the Army is a microcosm of America. No matter how difficult the challenges America faces, I am confident that we can overcome them if we remember our values, if our leaders do their part, and if we empower our people, including our immigrants and refugees, to solve these problems.
Just like shared service and sacrifice brings us together in the military, they can do the same in America. In fact, with the right leadership, the problems we face do not have to divide us—they can bring us together. I have seen it happen before. And I am confident that we will come together again as a country and overcome our challenges together.
As a veteran, what sort of responsibility do you feel to speak up on issues that relate to American ideals?
I worry about the civil-military divide in America, particularly among elites. Most of today’s and tomorrow’s political, economic, and cultural elites have not and will not serve in the military. Neither will their friends, colleagues, or children. Even among the general population, only 1 percent served in the war on terror. So the voters and the people shaping America’s policies, including policies about use of force, treatment of veterans, refugees and special immigrant visas, and other related issues, will rarely understand the true impact of their decisions.
This does not mean that they cannot make prudent decisions, but that they will not have the firsthand experience to make well-informed decisions. And people on active duty can only do so much to inform public policy. So I believe veterans have a tremendous responsibility to inform leaders, voters, fellow citizens, and anyone else who will listen about these issues.
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?
Special Immigrant Visas for former Afghan interpreters. I am a lawyer and I currently represent pro bono a former Afghan interpreter and his family in their special immigrant visa (SIV) applications with another veteran colleague of mine. In March of this year the Unites States Embassy in Kabul announced that no further interviews for resettlement to the United States would be conducted under this program due to a lack of visas. Though Congress reauthorized the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program through 2020, it failed to allocate enough visas despite an obvious need for them. Last year, Congress authorized 1,500 visas, but there are more than 10,000 Afghans applying for visas under this program.
When this happened, I was struck that we might not follow through on our promise to these people who risked their lives to serve with us. This is what led me to VFAI in the first place. My colleague and I started advocating to Congress on behalf of our client and all other Afghan SIV applicants. The VFAI team spent hours helping us set up meetings with politicians and their staff and develop talking points for these meetings. They also helped us publish an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle. Due to a lot of hard work by a lot of people, we were successful and Congress allocated additional SIVs last year and is on track to authorize an appropriate number this year.
What would you say to other veterans about the role that they can play in these issues as citizens?
Unite, don’t divide, even when you think people on the other side of an issue are not living up to American ideals.
Speaking up on issues that relate to American ideals presupposes that there are American ideals and that most or all Americans accept them. But I worry that some people no longer believe this to be true. You see, being American is a choice. We do not have a national race or ethnicity. Religion has always played a special role in America, but these days people are using it to divide instead of unite. We do not even have an official language. Instead, we are bound together by our commitment to our shared values. They are easy to identify. They are enshrined, imperfectly, in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. And though we have not achieved them fully, we continue to strive.
But today, one of the first responses in any public policy disagreement is to brand one’s opponent as un-American. That is a bold statement that transcends political disagreement: if being American means committing to shared values and one’s opponent is un-American, that means she does not share our values. These days, it seems like half of the country shares one set of values and the other half another. Even if people use the same words—liberty, equality, justice—they seem to mean something different to each side.
But while I hear politicians and pundits use it often, I rarely hear veterans use the term un-American. And I think that is because of our service. The military brings people together from all over the country, with different races, religions, and to an extent, economic statuses. While we differ in a lot of ways, we all serve and sacrifice together in a values-based organization. We accomplish the mission together. We would die for each other. And there is nothing like shared sacrifice and a hard job done well to bring people together. We might disagree with one another, even passionately so, but we know we share the same values.
So what does that mean for veterans in America? The obvious answer for a VFAI member like me is to support Special Immigrant Visas and refugees and to oppose Islamophobia. And I do. But I think that veterans can do much more. When people oppose SIVs or refugees, when they express concern or even animosity toward certain ethnic or religious groups, we can provide a different perspective. We can speak from our experience serving abroad or serving with the very people (SIV applicants, for example) that others may oppose. We have near-instant credibility just by virtue of having served. And we should use it. But we should not do so in a self-righteous way and we must not attack those who disagree with us as un-American.
Instead, we should respect their views, approach them from a position of humility, and explain our position based on our experiences in the military. We may convince some, we may fail to convince others. But how we do so can serve a higher purpose. It can show our fellow Americans that even if we disagree, we are all still in this together. And for the time being, in this very divisive moment, this may be the most important American ideal of all: e pluribus unum, out of many, one.