When I retired from the Marine Corps, like all of my friends who served, I reflected on my experience and wondered if I could find something as meaningful and important. I often revisited the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, when he spoke to the veterans of his unit some twenty years after their war (the Civil War). He said,
The generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing.
I had decided that nothing could compare to going to war.
The transition to civilian life was the most disorienting experience of my life. The country I had served overseas was not the country I came to know once I was back in it. In the military I lived in a culture that all but ignored differences of race, religion, and politics, and the culture I was now witnessing often spoke with contempt about others — the rich, the poor, the foreign-born, Muslims, refugees. Such speech would not be tolerated among our ranks in the military, where we truly believed in those sacred words that we are all created equal.
What to do? I knew I needed another mission. Over long conversations with my closest friends (all of whom seemed to be veterans) we agreed that we wanted to serve, even after taking off the uniform. We concluded that true patriotism is the willingness to take up the joyful, frustrating, and sometimes costly struggle to make the country better, and not just for ourselves, but for all Americans. By good fortune, I found my way to Human Rights First, and from there I was given the opportunity create Veterans for American Ideals (VFAI).
VFAI is a project for veterans — of all branches, ranks, and backgrounds — to engage as citizens in a nonpartisan way, to defend the ideals we all swore to serve and uphold. Ideals like keeping our promise to the brave men and women who served alongside us in Afghanistan and Iraq, welcoming refugees, and celebrating our diversity as a nation.
What I didn’t realize when we first embarked on this project was that the public conversation around refugees — and in particular Muslim refugees — would become a toxic focal point in the 2016 presidential campaign. But as the political climate has worsened, the desire of veterans to stand up against bigotry and hate has grown. Our movement has grown with it.
Together, we have lobbied — and won — on Capitol Hill for an extension of the Special Immigrant Visa program for our Afghan allies who served alongside us in the U.S. military. We have stood up for and alongside refugees. We demanded that our elected officials uphold our values by welcoming refugees.
We held our political leaders accountable for their words. We shared our stories, and were inspired to action by the stories of others. We have come together to call for unity, civility, and a return to our shared national values.
Our work is only beginning. It seems on some days that our country is increasingly divided. Hate crimes are on the rise and bigotry has made its way in to the mainstream.
Poll after poll shows that the military is the most trusted of American institutions. Our voices really can make a difference. We can remind our fellow Americans who we are as a nation — one that embraces diversity and welcomes refugees — and we can strive to ensure that demagoguery and bigotry have no place in our country.
As I reflect on 2016, I am grateful to all who have stepped up over the last year. I am humbled by your leadership, your moral courage, and your commitment to our country. As I look ahead to what we can accomplish together in 2017, I encourage each of you — whether you’ve been involved from the beginning or are brand new to this work —keep raising your voice.
Together, we can be the voice that protects the young girl wearing a hijab, that stands up for the Syrian refugee fleeing the horrors of war, and that helps our nation continue to be the big-hearted, generous, brave, United States we fought for.