Supriya Venkatesan: Having served in the US military in Iraq, I have shown my devotion to this country
Despite this sacrifice and the warmth I found in the military, the current political climate makes me fearful, she writes
Editor’s Note: Supriya Venkatesan served six years active duty in the US Army, including a 15-month deployment to Iraq. She is a freelance writer based in Seattle, and is working on a book based on her experiences in the military. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
Two days after 9/11, I watched as the news continued to replay images of steel towers crumbling in flames. I looked at the screen from my perch at the hostess stand of a swanky Italian restaurant in downtown Chicago, where I worked.
I had just begun my shift, and my manager pulled me aside. “We are overstaffed, and we have to lay you off,” he said. Even as a 16-year-old, I understood that hostesses don’t usually get laid off. I was being treated like hundreds of others who were suddenly out of work – their only fault: sharing the same South Asian features as me. In those days, stories circulated of Indians, and those who looked Muslim, as victims of not only employment bias, but also hate crimes and revenge killings.
After holding odd jobs in food service, I joined the US Army as a teenager because I couldn’t afford college on my own. But joining the military provided me with much more than tuition assistance. I got a family and a new community that was entirely devoid of racism.
In basic training, a white boy from rural Alabama shared that he had never seen a black person before, and now he not only knew black people, but had made friends with them. As I continued my career living in barracks in South Korea, Iraq, Kuwait and all over the United States, I always thought how remarkable it was that in the hallways you would hear hip-hop, country music and reggaetón – and occasionally Bollywood from my stereo.
There was a Chinese-American in my unit who grew up without the concept of God, and we talked theology. I cooked chicken tikka masala for my battle buddies, and they devoured it. A Peruvian-American soldier taught me salsa and bachata, and soon I was an expert. Friends who I would have never made outside the military taught me new ideas, shared their food and music, opened up their hearts and had my back when we deployed to Iraq.
We not only learned about each other’s backgrounds, but embraced the differences, and for that we were stronger. There was safety within the gates of a military installation. The military has a saying: We are not black or white or brown or yellow. We are green. That is the color that bound us. But outside this safety net a different world awaited me.
In 2004, I was traveling through Atlanta’s international airport while in uniform and was held for a special screening and pat down. My white peers, also in uniform, were upgraded to first class for being in uniform. That stung. My uniform, the willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice, was not seen by the civilian sector. I was viewed as a threat then, and these days I am seen as an even bigger threat.
A few weeks ago, white nationalists held a massive rally a few steps away from my apartment building near Westlake Park in Seattle. I had planned to go play in the park with my 2-year-old as we usually do, but suddenly I was too scared to leave my home. The other day, my stepfather told me that one of his Chinese-American colleagues was assaulted by a white person while hiking in the nearby mountains. The perpetrator has not been caught.
These incidents aren’t just local. They’re everywhere. And while the number of hate crimes appears to be tapering off in 2017, we don’t yet have all the data. What we do have are moments like those in Charlottesville, Virginia, which remind us bigotry is alive and well in this country.
Whereas in the military I found acceptance of diversity, in civilian life I am constantly reminded of the differences that divide us. And I am scared every single day I leave my home. I fear for my other friends of color. But I am not only afraid of the repercussions of racial judgment, I’m also concerned about the threat of violence.
As a veteran, I cannot tell you the depth of disgust I feel when I realize there are people in this country I defended – by going to war – who believe they are racially superior.
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In the military, we saw beyond skin tone, our faiths and country of origin. We were patriots, and that was enough. I wish civilians could see beyond the hate in their hearts and know people like me are not the enemy.
Instead of being divided, we could come together and simply be Americans.