Best Defense

I was a U.S. Army officer, but nowadays, America feels like a foreign country to me

My family had fled the war in Vietnam. Yet here I was in Afghanistan, in a war in which I saw strong similarities.

A U.S. Soldier with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment walks to a joint district community center after securing combat outpost Rajankala in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan Nov. 26, 2009. (DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Francisco V. Govea II, U.S. Air Force/Released)
A U.S. Soldier with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment walks to a joint district community center after securing combat outpost Rajankala in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan Nov. 26, 2009. (DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Francisco V. Govea II, U.S. Air Force/Released)


By Drew Pham
Best Defense guest columnist

In 2010, I deployed to Wardak province, Afghanistan, as a scout platoon leader. It was beautiful. Mountains in all directions like an ocean, the sky so close I felt I could touch the clouds, and night so black it made me feel draped in a blanket of stars.

But I was an occupying soldier. My family had fled Vietnam, and the war there. Yet here I was in a war in which I saw strong similarities — unrealistic goals, a failure to understand (or respect) local culture. I felt like a tyrant.

One morning we were called to confirm a kill. We found an entire village wailing over the body of a schoolteacher, shot by mistake while tending his fields. My men and I had not pulled the trigger, but even now I carry the shame of that act. My grandparents had been schoolteachers in Vietnam. When I looked at the dead man, I saw my grandfather’s face. I blamed myself for the agony of Afghanistan. I felt that somehow I had betrayed my heritage and my family, leading an American infantry platoon in a war so alike the one my family had fled.

I felt untethered when I returned home. Part of me never wanted to return to the United States. There was nothing — no friends, no job, no home — to keep me in America. When I saw an opportunity to do casework at a New York City-based NGO, I volunteered in the hope it was a way to eventually return to the war.

The paid staff at the agency scrambled to find beds, apartments, low wage jobs as federal funding dwindled to a pittance. I found myself among other young people in transition waiting to start their careers. The agency relied on us to deliver services to refugees and asylum seekers. It was up to the unpaid caseworkers to escort the just-arrived refugees through the bureaucratic labyrinth of social services.

I took some of my first clients to a McDonalds the day they were to apply for food stamps. The other clients ordered what I did, unfamiliar with the host of fried food. One client ordered a Big Mac. I sat with them to explain the run of the day — filled with hours in waiting rooms and shuffling papers. He took a huge bite of his sandwich and chewed. “I love America,” he said.

I wonder if he regrets those words now, as xenophobia prevails over compassion in the White House. Like many clients, he fled persecution only to arrive in a country that now promises some of the same maltreatment. One woman told me she was strapped to an iron bedframe for a month and tortured for her religion. She walked across the border to safety, yet languished for years as the U.N. vetted her for resettlement. Even after the rigorous U.N. investigation, she still required an intensive vetting from the Department of Homeland Security before they approved her for placement in the United States — a process much more exhaustive than when I was vetted for a top secret clearance.

Some days, I worked the front desk and received phone calls from Syria, people pleading for us to get them out. I could do nothing. Then there were the Afghans and Iraqis who had faithfully served the American war effort. They endured injury, death threats, and ostracization, then finally made it to America — only to find the country they had helped had turned hostile to them. Despite the war’s cost they expressed love for a country in which were not yet citizens. One man even joined the Army to go back to help Afghanistan.

The more time I spent with the refugees, the less I wanted to return to the battlefield. I found those families so foreign to me, yet so familiar. I often told them that my parents were refugees like them, and in this way opened a door into their sorrows and the small comforts of their inner lives.

I only cried once. There was an Afghan family who had two beautiful little girls. One was of school age, elated at the strange new sights and sounds of the city. The other was just a toddler stricken by leukemia, a common ailment in wartime Afghanistan, as well as Iraq. Burn pits and expended munitions poisoned their environment. I found a corner, dark and quiet, and sobbed silently.

The emotional fatigue was often too much. It was easier to dehumanize our clients than to share their suffering. I saw the same among my comrades in the Army — there is not enough room in one’s heart for all the pain. My coworkers weren’t bad people; they were just stretched too thin. The agency staff toiled long hours, sacrificing out of their own pockets, yet not matter how hard they tried those ramshackle apartments never looked like home, just another waypoint on a long road.

One day, I conducted an intake for a new client, just arrived from West Africa during the Ebola outbreak. I asked his father’s name. He said a name. He was dead. I asked his mother’s. Again, he said a name. Also dead. I asked after his siblings. He named them each — a large family. All dead.

I put my hand on his shoulder, as I was trained. I told him I was here to talk. He should take his time, that I could refer him to a mental health professional if he was in distress. The client said nothing. I paused. Then I asked him to repeat his phone number for the intake form.

I felt nothing. I completed the intake. Lunchtime. More clients. The day ended. The remainder of my time at the agency I could only feel rage, sadness, or nothing at all. I knew that it would be unfair to the people I served if I stayed on. After a year tending those hungry, homeless, and tempest-tossed, I left. There are days I miss it, when I think I should give up the comfortable job and salary I have now. There are days I hate myself for leaving, because no matter how many people I helped, it will never make up for America’s longest war.

When our president signed his ban on Muslims and barred the way for refugees, America became a foreign country to me. As the son of refugees, I searched for home in the country that caused my family’s flight. As a soldier, I searched for home in America’s war. Now, as our borders constrict around one small, petty man in a high castle, I feel further from home than ever.

Author’s Note: The third paragraph above mistakenly states that I was in the infantry. In fact, I was in a cavalry scout platoon. That may not seem like a big deal since the roles were usually functionally the same in U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, but I don’t want to misrepresent myself, and I take a great deal of pride in having been a cavalryman.

Drew Pham is a Brooklyn-based writer. He served with the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan in 2010-11. Afterwards he spent a year in case management and employment services at a resettlement agency in New York City.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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