Why I'm Joining Veterans for American Ideals


by Arti Walker-Peddakolta

I was a kid when I joined the military at 18—naive, overwhelmed, afraid, and way too scrawny and out-of-shape to believe that I was going to make it past basic training.

Growing up as first generation Indian American in a largely white town, I always felt different — we ate different food, spoke a different language, and practiced a religion that no one really knew about in the largely Christian town where I grew up.

So when I joined the U.S. Army, I was mostly expecting the same experience that I had lived my entire life. But I was surprised and so grateful for the camaraderie, friendship, and family that I encountered when I got to my first duty station after passing basic training and AIT (job training).

The military family that I became a part of was the most beautifully multicultural and diverse representation of the melting pot that is America. We had soldiers in our unit whose families had a long history of service in the military, and soldiers who joined just because they needed a way out of their surroundings. Soldiers from the rough, inner city streets of Philly, to those from the country backwoods of Georgia. Soldiers like me who were first generation American citizens, and soldiers who weren’t U.S. citizens, but who would go on to become citizens during their time in service.

I came to believe that the military is the best representation of what America can be if we choose to, in spite of our differences, work together to form a shared union. You see, the minute that you pass that final test of Victory Forge, and gather around that bonfire with your platoon—your gender, religion, and race don’t matter. What matters is that you marched those miles with your platoon, you lifted your fellow solider over that wall, and you formed a team that acts in unison to defeat a common enemy. What matters is your duty to the uniform that now defines the family you’ve vowed to protect, and the country you’ve promised to serve.

When I left the military to rejoin civilian life, I felt strangely out of place when I realized that the community feeling that is an essential part of military life wasn’t present in the civilian world. The protective community that I had grown accustomed to became a civilian community where once again I felt different because I looked different.

I was called a terrorist while walking down the street with my family. It’s probably the most hurtful thing that has happened to me after discharging from the military. I was pregnant, in my 8th month, waddling down the street, talking with my husband. Some guy, sitting on his porch, blurted out that word that all brown people know they might hear.

I stopped walking, looked at him, and asked him to repeat what he said, and he said it again. My husband, knowing how angry I was, gently guided me down the street, and away from this man, who did not know me, or the fact that I had worn that Army uniform, and served to protect and defend this man’s right to say what he said.

Being called a terrorist is something that shook me to my core, and made me question my service to this country. But it also emboldened me to find new ways to give back to the country I’ve had the privilege to serve. Because if something like this can happen to me, a U.S. citizen born and brought up in this nation, imagine how difficult and challenging it might be for refugees or immigrants, if they encounter the same hateful rhetoric as they are trying to navigate their life here?

Events like this happen to me and so many other folks across the country, and that’s the reason why the work of Veterans for American Ideals (VFAI) is so important, and why I’m joining the organization today.

VFAI is a nonpartisan project started by veterans, for veterans, for us to once again stand up and fight for those fundamental rights that we believe in, and are being threatened every day.

Scott Cooper, a Marine veteran, started VFAI as a project of Human Rights First so that Scott and other veterans can continue the service they started when they joined the U.S. military. I’m so grateful to Scott for his continued service, and for creating an organization that extends the beautiful, multicultural fabric that is woven during our time in the military to the civilian world.

VFAI’s current campaigns are focused on these areas:

Saving the Special Immigrant Visa program for interpreters and translators who served with the U.S. military

Protecting refugees

Countering Islamophobia

In the coming months I hope write about and talk with U.S. Representatives and Senators on these issues and how they are being threatened in this new political climate. Because standing up for refugees, countering Islamophobia, and expanding the SIV program for interpreters and translators who have served with the U.S. military is the work that we must to do to counteract terrorism and isolationism. If we give in to these fears, then we only serve to embolden the enemies around the world that we fought as soldiers, and are still fighting today.

If you’re a veteran, and you are interested in joining VFAI, checkout the website, or feel free to contact VFAI directly. Also, to keep abreast of the work that this incredible group of veterans is doing, follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

In case you need more convincing of the importance of the VFAI organization, check out the incredible segment featuring VFAI leaders from my favorite show — Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.