Reflections on 2018

By Scott Cooper

The end of the year is always a time for reflection and taking stock. We ponder what we have accomplished and what still remains to be done. For myself–I didn’t lose 10 pounds. I did do a better job of calling my mom a couple of times each week. 

Professionally, I look back on 2018 as a year of many challenges. In thinking about the issues central to our work–advocating for refugees and our Afghan and Iraqi wartime allies, countering anti-Muslim bigotry, and building a community of veteran-advocates who will use their platform to speak out for American ideals–it feels like it’s often been an uphill battle.

Consider the numbers:


Refugee admissions are the lowest since 2002. In fact, each year since 1975 we welcomed more than three times the number of refugees than we accepted in 2018.

Hate crime reports increased 17 percent last year, rising for the third consecutive year. In 2018, we repeatedly bore witness to the terrible cost of hate: in a synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, in the treatment of migrants at our border, in the rallies of white supremacists and neo-Nazis.  

Despite this discouraging reality, I have been inspired by the actions of countless VFAI leaders who have been a force for good across the country. In 2018, I witnessed this community at its best–engaged in the important work of building up, not tearing down. People like Rick Burns, who built a chapter in Omaha, Nebraska, that includes not just veterans and Afghan Special Immigrant Visa recipients, but people from various faith communities, the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Starbucks partners, and I’m guessing probably also his dentist and auto mechanic, judging by Rick’s recruiting powers. People like Kelsey Campbell, who graduated from UC-Hastings Law School and passed the bar on her first try, and who has also done more for her country as an Air Force non-commissioned officer, a DoD civilian, an advocate, and a voice for the voiceless than anyone I know. People like Arti Walker-Peddakotla, who has been the driving force behind the Chicago VFAI work and who consistently amazes me with her accomplishments as a community organizer. Were we all to have such passion and conviction.

So what to make of this past year? I’m convinced that distance is a prerequisite for perspective. We had some of those moments this year as well. I think of the passing of Senator John McCain and President George H.W. Bush. I’ve watched their memorial services several times. I’ve tried to avoid sentimental nostalgia for a time gone by, rather looking for what we can learn from their lives of service.

First, they refused to distance themselves from their communities because of anger, fear, or apathy. Sadly, we see much of that in today’s America, and I refuse to accept that as the norm. Second, they pledged to serve their country in peace as well as war, no matter what the cost to their own ambitions in private endeavors. Third, they missed the close comradeship they experienced in the military, that sense of working together for a common cause. They embraced the idea that dependence on other people is with us in civilian life just as it was in war. They believed that each one of us relies on other people in the country—on their support for the rule of law, and their rejection of the siren calls of ambitious demagogues. Their lives are an example to me. Imperfect, yet committed to serving their communities and seeking to be part of our better angels. But more than that, they believed in the American soul, noting that there is a difference between believing something and acting on it. They chose to act, to truly enter the arena.

And so our work continues in acting, in seeking to be in the arena of citizenship. With all the challenges we face, I must express my gratitude to you for stepping forward as uniters and citizens who believe that this great country requires much from every person so blessed to call it home. During the darkest days in Iraq I often reread the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes in a speech he delivered on Memorial Day in 1884, which speaks of war, but which I think is relevant to this work as well. He noted that:

“to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly. To fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might. So must you do to carry anything else to an end worth reaching. More than that, you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out. All that is required of you is that you should go somewhither as hard as ever you can. The rest belongs to fate.”

I am proud to be part of this work with you.