Leader Spotlight: Matt Lester
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 Matt Lester, a U.S. Marine veteran and the co-leader of Vets for American Ideals’ NY/NJ team.
Tell me about your military service. When and where did you serve? Why did you join the military?
I was a Reservist in the Marine Corps. I was in the infantry, and I served in Michigan while I was in college.
Why I joined is kind of a tough question, and the answer changes over time in some ways. In addition to the standard reasons—like being chubby and undisciplined and having no direction in my life—it was 2007, I was a freshman in college, and there was a lot of political rancor about the war in Iraq. There was a big question over what the war meant for the United States and for our identity as Americans, in terms of the way we interact with the rest of the world. I felt like I needed to contribute and to ensure that our country preserved our ideals and respected our traditional devotion to doing the right thing and protecting people, even in times of crisis.
I think a lot of Marines joined because they wanted to fight, but they wanted to fight for the right reasons. They wanted to fight for people and for an idea. By joining the Marines, you could be part of something bigger than yourself.
How did your service shape the person you are today?
The main way that it shaped the person I am today is that, because I assumed I would be deployed to Iraq—which, ironically, I never was—I was motivated to start studying Arabic in school. I eventually went to Egypt in the course of my studies and have been several times since.
Getting to know the people of Egypt, and their view of the United States, helped me begin to understand the unique role that American values can play in the world when we as a nation exemplify those values. It also showed me how people in other countries who seek a more just world for themselves can be demoralized when the United States fails to uphold its values.
I grew up in a small town in Michigan. There were very few Muslims in my town, if any at all. Going to Egypt and being a Marine, and being really conscious of the way that Muslims are portrayed in this country, all heightened my awareness about how we decide who is American and who is not American. It led me to engage meaningfully with Americans who are Muslim, and with the Islamic world at large.
I think it’s also worth noting that despite having grown up in a small town, I served with people from all across the Unites States. In boot camp, you’re instantly thrown into a melting pot with all types of people—I served with Muslims, with immigrants from various places.
It gave me an understanding of how diverse America is and how America is a unique place because people from all different backgrounds get the opportunity to assume a new, American identity. Most countries do not afford immigrants the opportunity to forge a new, common identity with other people from all over the world, and it’s one of the bedrock principles that makes this country great.
As a veteran, what sort of responsibility do you feel to speak up on issues that relate to American ideals?
Especially today, in such a toxic partisan political climate, every veteran has a responsibility to speak up in defense of American ideals. There are very few constituencies in this country that are considered apolitical. Veterans happen to be one of the very few groups that people from all walks of life seen as honest brokers. Because of that credibility—and because American ideals are under assault internationally and here at home by Americans who are losing sight of what those ideals are—we have a serious responsibility to speak up in defense of them. If we don’t, then I’m not sure how much longer there will be anyone left to speak up for those values.
As a veteran, putting your life on the line for American ideals doesn’t have an expiration date. We defend borders, and people, and places, but all of that is done in service to these ideals. We hold territory because we want to ensure certain ideals and values prevail in the world. Just because you’re no longer in the military, doesn’t mean it’s no longer your responsibility to defend those ideals.
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?
Two interrelated issues come to mind. First, I think that Islamophobia is undermining both our values and our civic life in this country. Conversations around Islam and American Muslims are corrosive to a degree that they threaten the foundation of our civic discourse. Today it’s primarily Muslims who are politically targeted, but if you look throughout American history it’s always some group that’s being scapegoated for political purposes. It’s always wrong and un-American to use someone else’s identity to stoke fear for political gain.
We can see this in the way we treat the interpreters and translators who served alongside U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is the second issue I’m focusing on right now. Those folks put their lives on the line for us, and we’re leaving them behind. From where I’m standing, the reason for this seems to come down to the fact that they’re Muslim and our country increasingly rejects the idea that Muslims can assume the American identity. That’s wrong.
My ancestors didn’t come to this country as Americans, but they became Americans, and that’s an identity I’ve sworn to defend. And I served with Muslims who did the same thing, just as many of these interpreters and translators hope to. By not keeping them safe, we also risk our future military operations because people will not want to work with us. We told them we would keep them safe and we are not. It’s a moral failure that I can’t accept.
I’m trying to organize veterans in New York to meet with our elected representatives to help save the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for interpreters and translators. We also put together some events around World Refugee Day to highlight the plight of refugees and amplify veteran voices in defense of American ideals. We’re also reaching out to local Islamic communities to work together, and to demonstrate that there is a community of veterans who want them here and who view their American experience as every bit as valuable as ours.
What would you say to other veterans about the role that they can play in these issues as citizens?
Even if you’re not wearing the uniform, you still have a duty to defend American ideals. Just like you took an oath to defend the Constitution—your contract might have an expiration date but your oath does not. We don’t take an oath to defend just the text of the Constitution but also the ideals it embodies. The duty endures.