Editor's note: this post first appeared in November, 2016
I can’t remember the exact moment (if there even was one) during my first tour in Iraq when I began to question both the official narrative of why we were fighting and the efficacy of our mission.
It may have been when fellow soldiers began to suffer concussions, lost limbs, and lives from the countless IED, mortar, and sniper attacks in our rural sector outside of Baghdad. It may have been after the 10th or 100th nighttime house raid, where we would trample fields, break things in the house, and haul off the men to crying women and children. Or it may have been one day in the blazing summer heat of 2006 when the entire village of Sadr al Yusufiyah showed up to peacefully protest their living conditions, and the fact that fixing the water treatment facility – which had been promised to them – was way behind schedule.
They gathered in one large mass of people, outside our patrol base, and held a banner of protest. In response, a sergeant in my platoon lamented the fact that he couldn’t mow them all down with his heavy machine gun on the rooftop we were guarding.
My subsequent tour in Iraq in 2007-2008 did nothing to change my perception that this fight we were engaged in – so costly on both sides, in treasure, blood, and basic sanity – wasn’t close to worth it. It wasn’t about defending our freedoms back home; it wasn’t about making the country safe for American-style democracy, and it certainly wasn’t about weapons of mass destruction (all reasons given for the invasion).
Years after leaving the Army, I struggled with reconciling and making sense of my experiences, particularly when everyone was thanking me for my service. I came to realize that the idealistic hopes and expectations that I had had upon joining immediately after the Iraq war began were a little bit naïve, to say the least.
Attending college after leaving the Army gave me a heavy diet of the academic history and analysis of U.S. involvement in the governments of Central America and the Middle East in the 20th century, and how it created unintended consequences – “blowback” in CIA speak – such as mass exoduses from Central American nations, and the middle eastern refugee crises. I read the works of fellow veterans such as Andrew Bacevich, Howard Zinn, Paul Atwood, and others.
But it was my introduction to the completely dysfunctional, broken, unjust and immoral U.S. immigration system that put me on my new career path.
It first began in Boston while in school, training Brazilian Ju Jitsu in the Boston area. A longtime member of the gym was placed into removal proceedings, after living here for many years, being law-abiding, working 2-3 jobs, and caring for his family – all for a bar fight. It struck me that this was fundamentally unfair and unjust. The punishment simply didn’t fit the crime.
Next, it was my exposure to our current policy toward middle eastern refugees – particularly those who served alongside us and often fought, bled, and died for it (including my interpreter) – that truly launched me into what will be a lifetime of work in this area. I am a brand-new immigration attorney, and in the policy-realm, I regularly travel to Washington, DC to lobby on these and other immigration-related issues.
I realize now that it is this fight that has far more to do with keeping our country safe and abiding by our international agreements and our moral and ethical leadership in the world than invading Iraq ever did. It is a tough fight, with countless disappointments; but I believe in it, and I know that it is – objectively – right.
"It was my introduction to the completely dysfunctional, broken, unjust and immoral U.S. immigration system that put me on my new career path."
I may have created far more insurgents and terrorists in Iraq than I ever converted, captured, or killed; I may have participated in the destruction of a country and the devolution of a region, providing the seeds for ISIS and the global refugee crisis emanating from the region.
But if I can use every ounce of my knowledge, effort, and dedication towards fighting to ensure that we as a nation make right (in some small way) what we did, and that we return to at least aspiring to be a beacon to the world’s tired, poor, and hungry – through such measures as taking in increasing numbers of refugees from the region and taking care of our middle eastern allies as well – then I can perhaps put behind me the feeling that I did not fight “the good fight” in Iraq.
This fight might be a lifelong, David vs. Goliath fight, but none of that matters, because it is the right fight.
Travis Weiner is an immigration attorney in Colorado, and the Colorado Chapter lead for Veterans for New Americans and Veterans for American Ideals. Travis served in the 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division (AASLT), from 2004-2009, deploying twice to Iraq.