A cloud of regret and shame hangs over the nation this Veterans Day. The ignominious end of America’s longest war will hang over me and my fellow veterans for the rest of our lives. The defeat, brought about by our national short-sightedness was a long time coming. The spectacular end to the war and our national abandonment of those who stood alongside us are a bookend to the trauma of the September 11th attacks, which started it. We have no one to blame for our defeat but ourselves, and we must endeavor to change our system to ensure that no generation of veterans carry the personal betrayal that ours do.
Like many others, 9/11 shaped my view of service and duty to my country. I joined the military to serve alongside thousands of other young people who were similarly affected. Many of us went to Afghanistan and then Iraq to try and make the world a better place for human rights. We believed that the nation and our government had our back. So when we landed in those foreign lands, we made promises to those who helped us. Promises that we believed were made with the full backing of the American people. “America is good, we honor our commitments,” we said, “America will help those who stand with us.”
It is a personal promise that every veteran understands. It is unbreakable.
Those who served have ingrained in them an ethos: to leave no one behind. It is the very first lesson one is ever taught in military service. This August, millions of veterans watched in horror as the culmination of the failures of four administrations forced us to violate that ethos. Tens of thousands of our allies were left behind. Our promises were not honored. In the end, America did not help those who stood with us.
Our honor broke.
This isn’t a Democratic or Republican problem alone. Each president and Congress over the last two decades failed, and so too did the voters who put them in office. It’s not like we didn’t warn successive administrations of the danger. For years, our community was screaming from the rooftops about the danger of not honoring our commitment. Still the nation failed to live up to its ideals.
In the intervening months since our national failure, veterans have taken control of their promises. Thousands of current and former members of the military have banded together to provide support and guidance to those who have been left behind. We’ve worked with public and private actors to provide safe passage, legal advice, and resettlement assistance to thousands of our Afghan allies who were abandoned. We’ve attempted to redeem our nation by creating a whole-of-society solution from the ground up.
So now, on Veterans Day, we’re left with a day of reflection. In the wake of Afghanistan, what does it mean to honor those who served? Is it to shake a hand and thank them for their service? Should stores give 10% discounts and offer priority parking? Do restaurants need to offer free dessert?
All we are asking for is that our promises be honored and our sacrifices be worth it. To that end, Americans should reach out their hand to the Afghans who have started a new life here over the last few months. Our communities should welcome them with open arms. Our businesses should prioritize hiring them. Our political leaders must make it easier for more of them to come, with fewer impediments, and at a faster pace.
We cannot change the last 20 years, and we cannot change our failed end to the war. But what we can do going forward is to redeem our national character by honoring the commitments that those of us who served made. This Veterans Day, do not simply thank a veteran, honor them by helping us keep our promise.