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We Swore an Oath

An open plea to my fellow Service Members and Veterans.

U.S. Flag flying over FOB Fiaz, Assadabad, Kunar Province, Afghanistan; photo by author

How we all doin’ upholding that oath we swore?

If you currently serve or have served in the U.S. military, you swore an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Too many of us have attended memorial services for those who gave their lives upholding that oath. Of course, one combat death is too many, but we knew that risk when we swore the oath.

Given that willingness to lay down our lives, shouldn’t we be willing to risk something less than our lives for the possibility of making our country stronger? There’s a domestic threat that’s been building for some time and it’s not from an organized group. The threat is our collective unwillingness to listen to each other, embrace our shared values, and work together to address our greatest challenges.

My plea for all Service Members and Veterans is to show some vulnerability; risk listening to and engaging with others with whom you don’t agree. Have real dialogues and not social media battles. Take the time to listen to those with a different viewpoint or opinion. Listen with no agenda except understanding that other person. Don’t think about how you’re going to counter everything they say.

Our country is being torn apart in so many different ways. It didn’t start with the recent killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but that did expose deep festering wounds that had been present for, in reality, most of our country’s history.

It’s not just the racial friction. The political and ideological battles have been growing in number and ferocity for decades. And all the economic progress made since the recession of 2008 has been obliterated by COVID 19, which is also exposing the threat from within.

Most of us veterans have come to terms with the threat of physical harm, but I think many of us are afraid of something else. We fear ideologies counter to our beliefs. When the “wrong” party is in the White House or running Congress, we are afraid and put up our defenses. We too often shut out even the possibility we all really want the same things.

It’s time for us who swore that oath to bring our efforts to bear on helping our country heal. It’s time to show the courage to face those fears so we have a full picture of the battlefield and identify the real enemies. And there are lessons to be learned from our military experiences.

I deployed to Afghanistan in 2008; a country that has faced conflict and corruption for centuries. My team’s mission was to help transition the paramilitary-style Afghan National Police (ANP) in Kunar Province to a “protect and serve” style police who respected the rule of law.

Of course, people who knew only corruption and conflict were going to struggle transitioning to such foreign ideas. That’s why our counterinsurgency training told us real change would take 15–20 years or more — the time for a generation of children to become adult leaders who wanted and would drive the change. Despite that awareness, we had to do what we could.

Toward that end, we had to build respect and trust with our Afghan counterparts. If they were going to trust us, we had to show we trusted them. That meant we had to be vulnerable. Several days every week, I would get dropped off at the Provincial Police Headquarters with my interpreter, Wali, while the rest of my team headed off to work in one of the District HQs.

Upon arriving, we would go to the Police Chief’s office where I would secure my body armor, Kevlar helmet, M4 rifle, and ammunition. We would then spend the day with the chief and various staff officers working to improve functions like payroll, logistics, and operations or discussing things like training and community outreach. I drank a lot of tea and ate countless lunches with the chief and his staff.

Author with Kunar Provincial Chief of Police BG Abdul Jalal Jalal

On those days, Wali and I would be among dozens of ANP, many carrying AK-47s. We were surrounded by buildings overlooking the HQ in which a sniper could easily hide as well as mountains from which mortars and rockets were occasionally fired. I was well aware of incidents of Taliban dressed as police or even actual ANP killing Americans with whom they worked. But the only way I could do my job was to show vulnerability; to show the Afghans I trusted them to treat me well and to protect me should a threat appear.

We service members who swore that oath need to do that now. We need to show vulnerability. We need to listen to others with whom we disagree or who represent things we feel are a threat and consider if maybe we’ve been wrong. We need to risk blows to our ego. And if we maintain our beliefs and opinions, we can at least look for those things in others we can respect and understand.

We can also, each one of us, decide which tactics we will employ to further the interests of our country. When you’ve been trained to rain fire down upon your enemies, it’s hard to step back and embrace a tactic of winning hearts and minds. Everything not clearly friendly tends to look like a threat, but we all know that’s not actually the case.

Rather than continuously firing salvos, why not adopt a cease-fire in the social media battles. You may then hear your sworn enemy singing Silent Night from the other side of no-man’s-land. You may find out the “leaders” who have been trying to convince you “the other side” wants to destroy your country and way of life are wrong. Maybe those on the other side want nearly all the same things you do. And maybe together we can come up with real solutions to our greatest challenges.

The only way to find out is to listen with an open mind and open heart.

There was a mosque within the Kunar Provincial Police Headquarters. Like most mosques in Afghanistan, it had a loudspeaker through which the imam could call people to prayers or make general announcements. I would periodically ask Wali what was being announced.

“Sir,” he would sometimes reply, “They are saying we should kill all Americans and kick the invading enemy out of Afghanistan.”

This would often occur after reports of civilians being killed in an incident somewhere in the country. I learned not to worry about it. The Afghans around us simply tuned it out as so much bluster and noise. They understood we were much more alike than different, and the real threat to their country was from within.

We swore an oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I’m asking you to join with your brothers and sisters in arms standing against the turmoil threatening us from within. Stand together by upholding that oath and showing vulnerability.

We Swore an Oath was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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