“Stronger Together” – A Message from a Veteran

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(Editor’s note: Ron Leach, former Senate candidate and retired veteran, shared this statement with Forward Kentucky, and said we could publish it. We are honored to do so.)

Donald Trump must call what happened today in Charlottesville what it is: White Nationalist/racist TERRORISM.

As a Veteran, the first thing that comes to mind for me is this: We have seen this crap before, and fought and died to resist its cancerous spread. Xenophobia, bigotry, hate, and racism are not our American values and will not be normalized in America.

I have never personally been targeted by discrimination or racism, but my grandchildren have. But even if I had not witnessed my grandchildren being judged first by the color of their skin, rather than the content of their character, I would stand up, speak out, and fight back.

In the face of racism and discrimination, we must COME TOGETHER and FIGHT BACK. We are Stronger Together!

When historically confused folks seek to divide and separate us; when the voices of intolerance threaten to tear our nation apart; when they reject our founding motto of E Pluribus Unum—Of Many, One Nation—we must COME TOGETHER and FIGHT BACK. We are Stronger Together!

When the voices of ignorance and intolerance clearly do not understand the difference between our Representative Democracy and a Theocracy, we must COME TOGETHER and FIGHT BACK. We must remind them that:

  • Our Constitution’s 1st Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
  • And Article 6, Section 3 reads “…No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

When those who would dare call themselves Christian, yet abandon women and children, denying safe haven to the most desperate in our world; when they reject Lady Liberty’s call to “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free…”, we must COME TOGETHER and FIGHT BACK and stand with Lady Liberty. We are Stronger Together!

We will not allow weak minds and irrational fears to shred our Constitution by barring specific religions or races from entering our country. We WILL ensure we have an immigration system that effectively bars specific individuals based on real threats identified by proper intelligence: immigration and security consistent with our American values that does not surrender our values to terrorists.

As an Occupational Health Physician Assistant I see and welcome immigrants daily. In one single day I saw:

  • A former Cuban Military Officer, who after refusing an order he judged immoral while in Afghanistan with Soviet force, spent nine years in a Cuban prison. Upon release, those still loyal to him in the Cuban military helped him get to a Cuban military aircraft in which he escaped. He, of course, was “welcomed” and escorted by US Fighter Aircraft and guided to land in an American airfield. He is now a naturalized and very patriotic American.
  • An injured commercial driver who was originally from Somalia, but spent most of his childhood in a refugee camp in Kenya. The reality of those who end up in refugee camps throughout the world is that only about 1% ever escape and return to any semblance of a normal rewarding and fully productive life. He beat the odds and is now a hard working American.
  • An Iraqi American who had put his and his family’s life in jeopardy serving as an interpreter for US forces in Iraq.
  • An Afghan American man who fled the turbulence and persecution in his homeland, first to Russia and finally to the United States. Again, just like the others – working and contributing to our American economy.

These are our new Americans: inventive, persevering, hardworking, and very thankful and proud to be American. I welcome them. We will not allow them to be treated as lesser Americans; we will not allow them to face persecution, bigotry, and the whims of the weak-minded and insecure. We will stand with them, and resist any and all who would threaten or deny them their unalienable rights as our fellow Americans. We will COME TOGETHER and FIGHT BACK, because we are Stronger Together!

For nearly 30 years I had the honor of being a member of the worlds mightiest, most capable and professional military, a military that gains strength from being a cross section of America: every ethnic background, from urban and rural roots, Red and Blue states, all faiths, men and women, and now openly including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

When the voices of hate rise up and seek to divide us and treat some as lesser Americans, I think of PFC Spears, a young black infantry soldier I met during my first Iraq deployment. It was early 2004, and his unit was traveling late at night in Bagdad in a blackout convoy with only night vision goggles to guide them. Somewhere along the way, a vehicle missed a turn and went off the road and into a canal. Several vehicles followed. A perimeter defense was established, and as they were accounting for all personnel and assessing for injuries, someone spotted a leg at the water’s surface. It was PFC Spears, trapped below the water. He was extricated, and with CPR on site, his pulse and spontaneous respirations restored. He was brought to a clinic I worked in with the 82nd Airborne. Upon arrival, his eyes were opening only to painful stimulus, his pupils were dilated, he was making only indiscernible sounds, was combative, following no commands and withdrawing from painful stimuli only. We initially hoped this was secondary to hypothermia, but there was no change with vigorous active warming. Due to his combativeness and the fact that he needed to be air evacuated to higher level care, PFC Spears was sedated and intubated for transport. I had to inform his platoon LDR that there was a significant risk that his soldier had suffered brain damage, but hoped that the cold water had preserved brain function. PFC Spear’s medical evacuation took him first to a Combat Support Hospital in the Green Zone of Iraq, and then on to Landstuhl Germany. Sedation was withdrawn; he was eventually extubated – the endotracial tube and breathing assistance removed. He then showed no signs of brain damage or other significant persistent deficit or injury, and wanted nothing other than to return as soon as possible to Iraq and to his Infantry PTL and back into the fight. Again, a young black kid from Detroit, a city in decline and arguably abandoned in many ways by the nation he was serving, not only stepped forward when his nation called, but following near death in combat, wanted nothing more than to return to his brothers in arms and return to harm’s way in service to his nation.

Let NO ONE tell you that PFC Spears is a lesser man, a lesser Soldier or lesser American. When they do, we must COME TOGETHER and FIGHT BACK, because we are Stronger Together!

I think of Jude Jonaus, a young Staff Sergeant Medic of mine during my second Iraq deployment. He was originally from the Dominican Republic, and was a very proud soldier and naturalized US citizen; always in perfect uniform and appearance even in a combat zone, and a great lover of American jazz music. He could have remained in the relative safety of the large forward operating base of Taji Iraq, working exclusively in the clinic pharmacy, and he likely would have never suffered even a scratch during our deployment. But that was not Jude. He volunteered for the hazardous Personnel Security Detail mission, placing himself in harm’s way while securing, to the extent possible, the safe transportation of high-ranking military and civilian personnel throughout the Sunni triangle. Jude lost his life on September 6, 2005. The publicly available reports state he died secondary to an improvised explosive device that overturned his HUMVEE, but in reality he was killed by a fairly sophisticated explosive formed projectile provided to the insurgents by Iran, that easily punched through Jude’s up-armored HUMVEE killing Jude and a fellow soldier near instantly.

Let NO ONE tell you that Staff Sergeant Jude Jonaus was a lesser man, a lesser soldier or a lesser American. When they do, we must COME TOGETHER and FIGHT BACK, because we are Stronger Together!

I have served in the US Army with folks I assumed to be gay and those openly gay following the drop of “don’t ask don’t tell.” It was never an issue. I only care about competence and performance, not someone’s sexual orientation or what they do in their personal lives. I was part of an audience at the pentagon years ago as the process of repealing “don’t ask don’t tell” was moving forward. A general placed in charge of coming up with recommendations was leading the town hall meeting. He relayed to those of us gathered that he had reached out to all of our allies—Great Britain, France, Germany, Israel and others—and asked them how they had “handled this issue.” The response from each and every military ally consulted was “it has never been an issue for us.” I remember years ago when being gay, if disclosed or found out, would disqualify someone for a security clearance and result in discharge. The thought process was that if you were gay that that could be used to blackmail and coerce you and therefore you would be deemed a security risk. And, this was true … but only because we forced people to live a lie and forced them to hide who they were. Magically, the fact that someone may be gay, lesbian, or in some other way “different” is no longer a security risk, simply because we no longer force them to hide who they are. Who they were was never the issue. How they were treated is what presented a potential security risk and potentially weakened our nation.

Let no one tell you that our lesbian and gay service members are lesser soldiers or lesser Americans. When they try to tell you that, we must COME TOGETHER and FIGHT BACK, because we are Stronger Together!

Yes, we have been here before: about three quarters of a century ago, 16 million Americans deployed across the globe and millions of Americans worked tirelessly here at home to support the war effort, as what has come to be known as the “greatest generation” responded to a world in crises, a world at real risk of being conquered by a twisted racist and genocidal ideology. More than 400,000 of our fellow Americans surrendered their lives in defense of liberty and defense of our American values rooted in the idea that all men are created equal. America emerged from WWII as the leader of the free world and for 70 plus years now has sacrificed blood and treasure throughout the world for the furtherance of liberty, democracy, and for the advancement of human rights.

We do not wear rose-colored history glasses. We as a nation have not always adhered to, or been effective enough, in furthering these most basic American—and increasingly universal—values here and abroad. The better angels of our nature have not always prevailed. We have many times stumbled and failed. From the original sin of slavery, to the prejudice experienced by each successive wave of immigrants, previous arrivals seemed to have forgotten their immigrant root. And it must be remembered that Black and Asian Americans returned from WWII often to face the same Jim Crow laws—legalized discrimination that had been on the books since the 1890’s.

But as Reverend King observed, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We will not fully fulfill our American destiny and become our greatest self as a nation until the arc of justice reaches all, regardless of ethnicity, faith (or no faith), and regardless of whom we love. I believe how long it takes to achieve full and persistent justice for all is determined by our resolve. We have the power to bend and hasten the moral arc’s path towards justice.

And finally, a little advice from this old Soldier, as words of caution.

America has degenerated into a tribe mentality, a tit-for-tat, winner take all society, with intolerance, lack of compassion and respect, and cycles of retribution and relentless attack, much the same as I and my brothers and sisters in arms witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The destruction from within, and the ugliness of our hopelessly polarized politics, is a far greater threat than ISIS, Al Qaeda, China, North Korea, Iran, or Russia (although Russia is actively and effectively exploiting our internal political self-emulation).

A nation cannot be great while divided by hate.

Only together can we build a Kentucky and America that works for all of us, a tide that truly lifts all boats.

Together, we must build a Kentucky and America that values each and every American, and a nation lifted and stronger because of our combined and unified strength.

We must COME TOGETHER as the UNITED States of America … Stronger Together.

Ron Leach, Major, US Army Retired