American Veterans Stand Up for Syrian Refugees
They see helping others as as vital to American values and interests
by KEVIN KNODELL
Joe Coon never planned to fight a war in Iraq. After a fit of idealism brought on by the 9/11 attacks, he joined the Oregon National Guard and thought he might deploy to Afghanistan.
Instead, he and his fellow cavalry scouts ended up in the desert — far from the mountains of Afghanistan — on patrol looking for elusive insurgents. He formed close bonds with several Iraqi families, often on a first-name basis.
Several Iraqis he came to know, including children, died at the hands of insurgents in sometimes sadistic acts of violence.
After returning from Iraq, Coon finished up his degree and went to work for libertarian organizations. Now as conflict continues to afflict the region where Coon once fought, he is attempting to mobilize Americans to support refugees and programs that would allow the private sector to play a greater role.
He’s one of many veterans who believe that supporting refugees isn’t just a quintessential expression of American values, but vital to American interests.
The world is dealing with the worst refugee crisis since World War II — possibly the worst in human history. Fleeing wars, droughts and oppressive regimes, human beings are moving by the millions to safer countries.
Today, the United Nations estimates there are 23.1 million refugees globally, half of them under the age of 18. The mass exodus includes people fleeing from several countries, but the war in Syria has created the largest share and generated the most public attention — and concern.
The war has killed at least 400,000 Syrians and displaced untold millions both inside and outside the country. It’s the deadliest and most complex war on the planet, and it’s getting worse every day.
The international community has always struggled to respond to refugee flows. For years, activists have tried to convince the public to pay attention to those displaced by conflicts. But now, as the crisis reaches critical mass, it’s become impossible to ignore.
Scott Cooper retired from the U.S. Marine Corps as a lieutenant colonel in 2013, closing out a career that took him to the Balkans, the Horn of Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East. He completed multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and led Marine aviators in combat.
He now works for Human Rights First as its director of national security outreach. Part of his job involved setting up Veterans for American Ideals — a group of veterans advocating on behalf of refugees and former interpreters.
Cooper told War Is Boring his first experiences with refugees occurred in the Balkans as he witnessed Albanians fleeing from Serbian death squads. He said he took pride in the role of U.S. forces protecting civilians in that conflict.
“You want to think of yourself as the good guy when you’re wearing that uniform,” Cooper said.
One of his most vivid memories is observing the devastation of Fallujah while he served in Iraq. “[I saw] people who had nothing to do with the war, decent people who wanted nothing to do with any of this,” he recalled.
Cooper said that addressing mass refugee movements has historically been a point of pride for America. After World War II, the United States played a central role in addressing what was at the time called “mass displacement.”
There was a particular emphasis on Eastern Europeans trying to escape communist rule. It wasn’t long until the United States first began to make a distinction between “immigrants” and “refugees,” accepting hundreds of thousands of the latter during the evacuation of Saigon and the Mariel boatlift from Cuba less than a decade later.
Refugees admitted into the United States must go through a vetting process that has been in place since the the Refugee Act of 1980, a process that has become more sophisticated as new technology and techniques allow for more comprehensive screenings. State Department personnel and members of U.S. intelligence agencies interview and investigate each individual.
To date, no one legally admitted to the United States under refugee status has committed a terrorist act in America — though a small handful have planned to do so or committed acts abroad. (The Boston Marathon bombers were the children of asylum seekers, who fall under a distinct legal definition and go through a different screening process.)
Cooper stressed that this vetting process — which typically takes 18–24 months at the least — is the most rigorous screening process for anyone admitted into the United States. It includes interviews and checks by multiple intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Syrian refugees face an additional layer of screening called the “Syria Enhanced Review.”
Fleeing death, many former military translators are walking to Europe
This entire process happens overseas and must be completed before a refugee is admitted into the United States. It’s much different than the migrant crisis in Europe, where asylum seekers cross the Mediterranean and physically walk across the continent.
However, many American politicians and commentators opposed to admitting Syrian refugees — or those from any country with significant Arab or Muslim populations — continue to insist that there is “no vetting process.” Cooper recounted meeting with lawmakers who repeated the same charges.
“I don’t know what to say, except that it’s just patently not true,” he said.
Cooper and Veterans for American Ideals work closely with other groups including the International Refugee Assistance Project. IRAP’s chairman, retired Green Beret Walt Cooper (no relation to Scott Cooper), served in Iraq leading commandos in manhunts for some of the region’s deadliest terrorists.
In December 2015, Human Rights First sent a letter to members of Congress urging legislators to oppose proposals to ban Syrian and Iraqi refugees. The list of signatures included retired generals George Casey, James Jones and David Petraeus, retired Adm. James Stavridis and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Petraeus in particular has been vocal about what he sees as rising anti-Muslim bigotry. In March, he penned an op-ed in the Washington Post in which he expressed concerns about politicians promoting bans on Muslims.
“As policy, these concepts are totally counterproductive: Rather than making our country safer, they will compound the already grave terrorist danger to our citizens,” Petraeus wrote. “As ideas, they are toxic and, indeed, non-biodegradable — a kind of poison that, once released into our body politic, is not easily expunged.”
Petraeus doubled down again during a summit in June. “Certainly, you should do the background checks. Certainly, you should safeguard against individuals who wish us ill will,” he insisted in a curated conversation with Fox News analyst K.T. McFarland.
“And also, by the way, safeguard against the extremist thinking that has been behind some of these attacks, it’s quite apparent. But we don’t do that by being exclusive, or by hate speech or other types of responses. I think you do that by pulling together.”
On Feb. 16, 2011, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Cameron Kerr stepped on a pressure plate-triggered improvised explosive device in a village in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. As a helicopter carried him away, he asked a medic when he could return to his soldiers.
“You’re going home, sir,” the medic replied.
Kerr lost his leg that day and earned a Purple Heart.
To say the least, that memory was very much on his mind when, during a press conference, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump showed off a Purple Heart one of his supporters had given him.
“I always wanted a Purple Heart, this was much easier,” Trump said.
Kerr said he was incredulous when he heard the remark. “He doesn’t understand the fact that you have to bleed and/or die [to receive a Purple Heart],” Kerr said. “I know he probably didn’t mean anything by it but it shows how out of touch he is with those of us who work for a living.”
Kerr started a gag GoFundMe campaign to “help Trump earn a Purple Heart.”
“As a Purple Heart recipient who earned one the old-fashioned way by returning from Afghanistan one leg lighter, I fully endorse his desire to earn one and would happily oblige his interest in doing so, by being one of the first to chip in to fly him to the conflict zone of his choosing,” Kerr wrote on the page.
“After all, you’re never too old to follow your dreams.”
But what started as a joke quickly began earning money much more quickly than Kerr expected. He decided to change tack. “Where does this go in a way that will help humanity on the macro level … and not go anywhere near where [Trump] would have wanted to go?”
Kerr then announced on the page that any money raised in the campaign would go to benefit charities working with Syrian refugees. Kerr told War Is Boring that as a group, Syrians have been “slandered, denigrated and mischaracterized” more than almost any other group in 2016.
Kerr’s personal connection to the topic of refugees runs deep. In the early 2000s, he and his family worked to help resettle some of the Sudanese “Lost Boys.” Many had survived massacres and some had been forced to fight as child soldiers.
He admits that not all transitioned seamlessly — some former child soldiers have struggled with alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder. But most have been productive, including through starting small businesses. “A lot of these guys are more deserving of their citizenship than a lot of natural born Americans,” Kerr added.
He saw for himself the impact of war on communities in Afghanistan.
“You see people caught up in stuff that they have no control over,” he recalled. “There was an exodus of families, it was the surge and we were pushing deep into Kandahar … their families just picking up everything and leaving, sometimes permanently, and the Taliban would take over and were using their homes as IED factories.”
“You see the civilian toll not just in the occasional misplaced rounds and bombs, but also the regular stuff, like ‘sorry if your house is being used as an IED factory, we’ve got to bulldoze it.’”
“It sucks if you’re just caught in the middle of it like a lot of these people are,” Kerr said. “I’m not criticizing what we did at the same time, because you need to understand that if there’s an IED factory, you’ve got to bulldoze the IED factory.”
As a combat veteran Kerr readily admits that the war was at times exciting, even exhilarating. “It’s a tremendous Hell of a lot of fun when you’re in it as a young man … but you still don’t want it to happen unnecessarily, as a lot of reasonable vets would assert.”
While Kerr said the response to his fundraiser was overwhelmingly positive, some commenters challenged him and questioned his motives. Some asked why he wasn’t raising money for fellow veterans.
But ultimately, Kerr said there are already existing veterans groups and resources for transitioning soldiers. “The veterans of America have it tough sometimes, but nowhere near as a tough as refugees,” he said. “We don’t have our own government dropping barrel bombs on our homes … they need it more.”
While he said most of his conversations with critics were respectful, some drifted into hatred for the refugees. Some commenters told Kerr that any support for Syrian refugees is tantamount to supporting terrorism.
“I had one or two tell me I was supporting the enemy,” he said. “There were people straight up accusing me of borderline treason.”
He added that those notions reflect a form of patriotism he doesn’t recognize. For Kerr, his military experience was about serving others. He argued that people who assume that supporting the military equates hating Muslims are doing nothing to help veterans — nor are they making the world a safer or better place.
“Yeah, I’m a veteran and I’m helping Muslim Arabs, if you want to look at it that way, sure. If I can help dispel that myth, then sure, by all means,” Kerr added. “Because we obviously haven’t done a good job of dispelling that myth in the Arab world.”
He was quick to add that his own contribution is tiny in addressing the enormous scale of the crisis. “What we’ve seen is there’s so much apathy, after five years of war people get bored … we have to give a shit again,” Kerr said.
“You don’t need to know Aleppo or the names of these cities or where they are, you just need to know that there are thousands of people who can randomly die in terrible ways at the hands of their own government or by Salafist jihadis.”
Joe Coon, the former Oregon National Guard cavalry scout, is the co-founder and vice president of the Niskanen Center, a Washington, D.C. libertarian think tank. For Coon, his experiences deployed in Iraq deeply shaped his views on the Middle East and on refugees.
“My day-to-day experience with Iraqis as a soldier was constant interaction with people who were just striving to get on with their lives and provide for their families unmolested, and had an earnest desire to improve their lives,” Coon recalled.
To be sure, not everyone was friendly. Bombings, kidnappings and assassinations by terrorist and insurgent groups were common occurrences in the areas they worked — and Iraqi civilians were the hardest hit.
Coon formed a particularly close bond with one of his unit’s local interpreters. But not long after returning from Iraq, he learned that his friend’s life was in danger. Coon and his fellow soldiers, as well as family and friends, navigated the bureaucracy of the military and State Department to find a way to get him to safety in America.
Coon along with other veterans — themselves working to get their translators to safety — lobbied Congress for legislation to ease entry rules for interpreters. They eventually managed to secure his former interpreter’s entry into the country.
“I’ve seen that one person take advantage of his opportunity to escape danger and to thrive in this country, where he has since become an American citizen,” Coon said.
Today Coon’s friend is back in Iraq, working as a contract employee with the U.S. military as it supports Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State.
“He’s a fiercely patriotic American and someone who tries to do good here and help the people back in his homeland,” Coon said. “I was most fortunate to meet someone like him, and I have reason to believe there are many more like him who need a hand and need the opportunity.”
He said that America has a culture of philanthropy and generosity, and that he frequently has people ask how they can help refugees, extending to directly sponsoring refugees. The Niskanen Center is currently working on a pilot for a private resettlement program.
Coon has also advocated for reviving aspects of a Reagan-era program that would allow private sector resettlement of refugees from individual and charity sponsorships. “Our country actually has a precedent for private resettlement, and Canada and several others still have programs like this,” Coon explained.
He said that members of Niskanen’s immigration and refugee policy team have met with top officials at the State Department and the United Nations, as well as members of Congress and the White House to discuss private sector resettlement efforts.
They’ve found a significant number of people across the political spectrum open to the idea. Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and Democratic Reps. Zoe Lofgren and John Conyers have expressed support for private resettlement programs. And in August, 22 Maryland state lawmakers signed a letter urging Secretary of State John Kerry to launch such a program.
But fear — and often outright hatred — of refugees still colors the conversation. The Niskanen Center regularly receives hostile e-mails and comments on its social media pages from those opposed to refugees resettling in the United States.
“I think the unfortunate turn to simplified, fiery, evocative and fear-inducing rhetoric has had a serious effect,” Coon remarked. “It’s great for making people afraid and energizing your most ardent supporters, but it is not, unfortunately, the way to have an adult policy discussion about issues of huge importance.”
Coon grew audibly frustrated when talking about calls from Donald Trump to ban Muslims from entering the United States. He said that while Islamist terror is indeed a threat — he’s faced it down personally as a soldier — he thinks banning Muslims is, at the least, shortsighted.
“I take seriously national security concerns and it’s understandable to want to react such tragedies as the events San Bernardino and Paris, but we need to be careful not to overreact — we need to be able to keep perspective,” Coon said. “I feel that right now, among the most vocal opponents of addressing the refugee crisis, it’s a conversation driven primarily by fear.”
Some veterans have argued that the United States needs to first provide safe passage to Afghan and Iraqi citizens who worked for the U.S. government as interpreters before admitting Syrian refugees.
Moral complexities ultimately require making a choice
“This is not as it should be,” veteran Dane Bowker wrote in a 2015 op-ed for the Washington Post. “Before we bring 10,000 refugees to the United States, we must fulfill our responsibility to the Afghan and Iraqi interpreters who performed real, substantive and heroic service to America.”
Coon replied that prioritizing former interpreters is better than saying the United States should keep everyone out, but it’s a false dichotomy. “To say it’s one or the other, or to say that we can only help those who have helped us, I think is to miss the bigger issue.”
Some politicians and commentators who oppose resettling refugees argue that any refugee of Middle Eastern descent is simply unable to assimilate to Western culture and values. They argue it’s safer for Americans — and actually better for refugees themselves — to stay in camps in their own region surrounded by people of “their culture.”
Others argue it’s a cheaper solution. “That’s an argument I hear frequently, that it’s safer and more cost effective to send refugees to camps,” Coon said.
However, the logistics of maintaining large refugee camps and providing services to residents is actually very expensive over time — more so then resettling refugees to places where they can get jobs and support themselves, according to Coon. There are also long-term security consequences.
For instance, a fifth of people living in Lebanon are refugees. Those in the camps are desperately looking for work, and trying to find ways to stay sane and feed themselves. There’s a dark side to the camps. Some desperate women have turned to prostitution in Lebanese cities, and refugees are often subjected to violence and exploitation.
Refugee camps are typically built as temporary solutions. But as the war in Syria goes on for years without an end in sight, the camps have grown more and more crowded. And the longer the residents languish without hope of improvement in conditions, the more dangerous the situation becomes.
“The problem is these camps, the conditions are usually poor … it often can have, sometimes by design, destabilizing effects on host countries,” Coon explained. “It’s much easier for outside elements to influence and radicalize vulnerable populations in these camps.”
He added that resettling portions of the refugees elsewhere takes the pressure off Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Greece which have disproportionately borne the burden thus far — and that allowing refugees to live in safety will help reduce the possibility of radicalization.
“These are human beings,” Coon said. “We should be able to relate to, for example, Syrian parents who want to keep their children safe and remove them from danger. These are just instinctual human needs and goals that have very little to do with any cultural differences we may have between us.”
However, Coon said he’s optimistic that Americans would be willing to support Syrians and other refugees if given the opportunity through the private sector programs Niskanen has proposed.
“If the American people were given an outlet to help real people, they would do so,” he argued. “If there was a system that could harness Americans’ will to help those in need we could really save a lot of people.”