There is an American Warrior Code. After ten years of military service as a Marine Infantryman and Green Beret, I know this code well. In the Marine Corps, I learned Semper Fidelis, always faithful. As a Green Beret, I live by the ethos De Oppresso Liber, free the oppressed. These are not merely words that line plaques hanging on my office wall. They are the essence of who I am as an American warrior and veteran. They drive every decision I made in the service and continue to do so here at home.
Yet, over the last few months, Congress has debated the National Defense Authorization Act without concern for the impact their delay is having on America’s warriors. Within the proposed legislation there have been small provisions related to the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) which is the only option for thousands of Afghan and Iraqi allies who are currently under threat. A recent letter to Congress signed by concerned veterans and numerous distinguished General Officers urges Congress to act on the SIV before it’s too late to save our allies. I signed this letter because I choose to defend America’s warrior code.
You won’t find a definition of the warrior code in a field manual and its description varies whether you are in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines. However, when you enter one of the services of the U.S. military, you willingly live by their version of code. You have to or you risk harming your brothers or sisters in arms. In combat, you live the code to save lives. Whether you are a Marine Grunt, a Ranger, a Green Beret or a SEAL, there is one universal principle to the warrior code, leave no one behind.
On June 16, 2006, I heard the radio call that I feared the most, “2 U.S. MIA.” Almost instantaneously the thought of leaving two Americans behind brought out an emotion in me that thankfully I haven’t felt for years, until now. For what seemed like a series of endless days and nights, my unit searched every home and car we could to find our missing brothers. I didn’t know Private First Class Kristian Menchaca and Private First Class Thomas L. Tucker. They were taken over 100 miles from my position and the chance of finding them was low. However, the probability of hitting an IED was high if not guaranteed, but it didn’t matter. There was no time for debate and I was willing to give my own life to make sure they were not left behind. My warrior code told me that there was the right thing to do. Unfortunately, by the time they were found it was too late. They had been brutally tortured to death. As much as my heart ached for them and still does, my soul remains intact. We had not left Kristian and Thomas behind. They came home and were buried. The military upheld the warrior code that day but as a nation we have since failed to keep this promise to so many others who have stood by us during the darkest days of war.
Next to me during almost every second of the search effort was an Iraqi soldier. His warrior code was being tested as well and he chose to risk his own life to search for two Americans that he didn’t even know. He chose not to abandon us. Weeks later, this same Iraqi soldier saved my life. I consider him more of an American than many of my neighbors. Today, this man waits in Turkey. He is a refugee hoping to one day come to the United States because it’s the only option he has left. He is a hunted man in his country. Yet, he still trusts us and he is not alone.
There are thousands of Afghan and Iraqi allies who have been forced to flee their homes as a result of their support for the U.S. military. These men are not cowards. Many have saved American lives, including my own. Despite the extraordinary sacrifices of these allies, there is no “fast track” to enter the United States. Instead, their journey is hindered by various bureaucratic barricades. For all wartime allies turned refugees their greatest challenge is time. Simply, they must each find a new home before they are killed.
The Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), which was designed to help our allies in need isn’t working as planned. Lengthy backlogs, repetitive security screenings and processing delays have marred an otherwise noble effort. I recently spoke with another Iraqi who was an interpreter for multiple bomb disposal teams outside of Baghdad. I cringed when he told me which roads he had helped clear during the height of the Iraq war. These were places I would not have volunteered to go. No way. He has waited for three years for his SIV to be processed. His children have been out of school for two years. He is hunted by ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Shia Militia and the list goes on. He still has no idea if or when he will receive a visa. He is on his own despite the fact that multiple American veterans are willing to speak on his behalf.
For Iraqis, the SIV was closed in 2014 and their hope of coming to the United States dwindles each day. However, the Afghan SIV is still open, but the number of visas allowed is up for debate on the floors of Congress. To the warrior code at least extending the Afghan SIV for all those in need is a simple matter of right and wrong. In war, you don’t leave people behind; EVER. If we abandon these Afghan allies, then we have also abandoned our own veterans. You will kill our warrior code.
It needs to be said that not all foreign soldiers or interpreters acted with honor. Our enemies have viewed our reliance on foreign partners as a weakness to be exploited. I lost a classmate and one of my own soldiers, both friends, to horrible insider attacks. I met interpreters that I didn’t trust and I worked with other soldiers that were blatantly corrupt. I have nothing to offer those who veered from the warrior code. They made their choice. To those honorable men who hide in the shadows waiting for help, I understand your struggle.
As a veteran, I came home from war to a broken system. I know what it is like to wait for years for help. I can still feel the desperation when I was told my application for VA benefits would take 15 months. I also remember crying the day my struggles ended. I empathize with the allies who are at the mercy of the international refugee system. Their journey is truly just beginning and my heart bleeds for them.
I am also thankful that I have never lived in their world. I don’t know what it is like to be unwelcomed in my own home. I have never been threatened by a co-worker. My religion has never put me at risk. My government isn’t corrupt. I can’t imagine a day when death is a better option than life. I came home from Iraq with my warrior code and honor intact, until now. To know that the man who saved my life and thousands of others like him wait without hope cuts a wound so deep inside of me that I can only explain it as the antithesis of honor.
I recently had the privilege to speak to my commander from the war in Iraq, General David Petraeus. I asked him, “what moral obligation do we have to our wartime allies?” Like any battle-hardened leader, he told me that “we can’t save them all,” but he also suggested that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Yet, I hear the rhetoric of hate in our public debates. There is anti-Muslim sentiment and fear to let outsiders into our sacred land. This xenophobia threatens America’s warrior code.
As much as we try to pretend otherwise, refugees are a result of America’s wars. Their plight is related to our “boots on the ground” throughout the world. By allowing smaller and smaller numbers of elite warriors to carry out America’s wars, we force them to become increasingly reliant on local foreign partners. These warriors become friends and for years, they stay in contact. America’s warriors personally know and trust many of our allies. Yet, there is NO formal means for veterans and service members to advocate on their behalf when they are threatened. Instead, we rely upon others who probably have never even heard of our code to decide whether these allies are worthy of our help.
The veteran’s letter to Congress asks for 6,000 visas for Afghan allies and their families as well as a continuation of the SIV program for as long as America has troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. This request seems like nothing compared to the over 400,000 refugees that fled to the United States following World War II. Protecting our allies has always been a part of the American warrior code.
I do not believe that we should bring each and every refugee to our country. Nor am I asking for exceptions to be made in our visa system. At a minimum, my fellow veterans and I are merely suggesting that we should help those who helped us when we needed it the most. Congress can protect these allies and their families before their time runs out.
America has deep wounds from our wars abroad. Yet, the essence of our warrior code has been wounded and veterans are bleeding because of it. You have seen many of my other fellow veterans share their thoughts on this issue before. They do so because it strikes at the core of who we are. We are witnessing the dismantling of our warrior code. Like any wound you must assess and treat it. Yet, to do nothing, to ignore the issue, to continue on the path we have chosen makes me wonder if America’s veterans are not refugee ourselves?