Veterans Day is a powerful day on which to reflect upon the great sacrifices made for our country by our courageous men and women in uniform. Moreover, Veterans Day is about expressing gratitude to all who have served our country. My most memorable Veterans Day was in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2013. I spent the day with my soldiers and my Afghan interpreter, Sharky. Sharky served the United States honorably and risked it all for America.
This year on Veterans Day, as I humbly accept the gratitude that is inevitably expressed, I am also remembering Sharky and so many other wartime allies who sacrificed alongside us, and who were motivated by the same values and ideals as we were. I look at our country today, and I worry that we may have momentarily lost sight of those values and ideals.
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The current administration is not showing gratitude and appreciation for what Sharky and others like him have done for our country. By proposing a 45 percent cut in humanitarian assistance, together with significant cuts to refugee admissions, they have signaled their willingness to leave behind many of the interpreters who fought alongside us in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sharky changed my perspective on refugees and on our role as Americans in supporting them. Sharky was humble and friendly. He earned our trust and respect, and our bond turned into one of mutual friendship and brotherhood.
I asked Sharky why he was an interpreter working for the U.S. Army; the risks were, and remain, considerably high. He told me that he wanted to protect his country and that he wanted to make Afghanistan a better place. Sharky also told me that the Taliban devastated his family. Both he and his brother signed up to help the U.S. Army as interpreters. When the Taliban discovered this fact, they hunted down his brother and brutally executed him. The Taliban also threatened to kill the rest of his family. Despite this, Sharky continued to serve Afghanistan and the U.S. Army honorably. He applied for a Special Immigrant Visa, the special visa class that enables our wartime allies to find safety in America.
Sharky is still waiting for his Special Immigrant Visa – four years after he applied. He and his family remain in danger in Afghanistan; he fears that, because of the recent reduction in and negative rhetoric around refugee admissions, their chances of finding refuge in the U.S. have plummeted.
The United States has long been a humanitarian leader around the world. From the founding of this nation, we have welcomed refugees. It’s who we are as a country, but it’s personal for me, because of the friendship I made with Sharky. By welcoming refugees, the United States truly revitalizes its democracy, admits outstanding contributors to society, bolsters its economy, builds respect around the world, and helps preserve or restore stability in dangerous and volatile regions.
On this Veterans Day, I’m remembering all veterans, including a special category – those wartime allies who sacrificed so much for both their country and for our country. They upheld their promise to us; the U.S. needs to uphold its promise to them by continuing to be a beacon and a leader in the world, and welcoming people like Sharky and other refugees. They will enrich our country. I encourage all Americans not to stop at words this Veterans Day. Thank veterans by acting. Thank veterans by writing to your members of Congress urging them to tell the current administration to support America’s leadership as a nation that welcomes the stranger, keeps its promises, and leads in the world.
Christian Bellavia is a U.S. Army veteran who served in Kandahar, Afghanistan and is a member of Veterans for American Ideals, a non-partisan organization dedicated to upholding America’s values-based leadership at home and abroad.