Watching the news out of Kabul, Afghanistan in August and early September was challenging for many Afghanistan War veterans like me. Many of us have mixed feelings about watching the withdrawal from Kabul Airport and seeing the scared faces of the tens of thousands of ordinary Afghans that surrounded the airport and streamed across the runways looking for their way out. These were the very people we fought with and protected as they lined up to vote for the first democratic elections in their nation’s history. How could this happen? To veterans these events seemingly challenged our sacrifices, and the those of our comrades we lost in a decades long struggle.
This Christmas season we have thousands of guests in Indiana, from Afghanistan, still facing uncertainty about where they will be able to settle and what their lives will be like in their adoptive United States. Our Afghan refugees have been through an incredibly challenging set of experiences to find themselves in our temporary refuge at Camp Atterbury. A small group of volunteers and leaders at St. Luke’s have been working to help find a home for one or more of these families and we need your help.
I left my home and St. Luke’s more than 15 years ago, with thousands of my fellow Hoosiers to fight in a war that was then only a couple of years old. Task Force Phoenix II departed from Indianapolis Airport and, after a long journey, ultimately landed at that very same Kabul Airport in 2004. Ours was the first US military unit to use the airport to move our troops into the combat theater. It looked very different then – with no modern terminals and only the wreckage of two previous wars strewn around. More than two thousand of our neighbors spent more than a year working to develop and fight side by side with the Afghan National Army and our coalition allies. When we did return to our homes, we mourned four of our fellow Hoosier soldiers who did not return with us. Many of us had been changed by the experience, but we were closer to our fellow soldiers and our families, and we knew in many ways that we had experienced something unique that we would find hard to explain.
Our Hoosier soldiers had a variety of roles for that first long wartime deployment - I spent most of my fourteen months embedded with Afghan combat leaders and living and fighting all across eastern Afghanistan. It was an intense experience, one in which the people and the environment seemed alien and hard to understand. As the year progressed however, I became deeply appreciative of the Afghans I worked with personally and it left me with a real sense of their nobility and resilience in an environment which would shock most ordinary Americans. My fellow Afghan soldiers were incredibly brave and tough. Our interpreters risked everything to help make our work possible and became some of our closest comrades. We also had the unique opportunity to engage with the Afghan people every day – traveling through their villages, meeting with their leaders and village elders, and even having dinner with them in their homes. I often feel a nagging sense of loss about being ripped away from such a unique people and not having a way to know them the way I did.
I don’t have to tell our St. Luke’s neighbors that they should be proud of their Indiana soldiers, but I don’t know if they will have heard the stories of how our young soldiers did so much more than their duty while deployed. Despite all the challenges of our assigned missions, our soldiers also found ways to dig wells, repair schools, conduct medical clinics for remote villagers, and even support programs that assisted Afghan women with some of their first steps toward individual liberty and self-sustaining employment. Our officers and soldiers supported a program by a brave American woman in Kabul as she took in widows and other women who had no job skills and couldn’t survive on their own because conservative cultural norms. We spent the year procuring critical supplies, food, and staying in frequent contact with the underground operation. I have always held that Hoosiers are blessed with an innate sense of compassion and helping one another, and the soldiers of Task Force Phoenix II brought those gifts to Afghanistan with them. They couldn’t help doing more.
Fast-forward to this year then - after 20 years of partnering with our Afghan allies, it was hard to conceive of those families having to literally flee the only country and home they knew with only the clothes on their backs. At St. Luke’s, many of you have already been generously donating your time and resources to assist with providing critical supplies to our refugee neighbors at Camp Atterbury. Thank you! Through your amazing work, the short term needs of many have been addressed. We now have a historic opportunity to do more to help address their long-term needs.
Through our partnership with Exodus Refugees Immigration, St. Luke’s has already agreed to support a number of families as they are resettled in the greater Indianapolis area. This is a significant new commitment but one for which our church family is well-prepared and committed to. The government agencies are finding housing in areas wherever they can, but there are still thousands of refugees left at Camp Atterbury and at military bases across the country. However, in our discussions with Exodus, we’ve heard that finding homes and rental properties for our new immigrant families is going slowly, and that sparked an idea.
Here is my challenge to our you and our community: if our St. Luke’s family can find another home, a rental property near our community, we will be able to bring more families to our community and support them through their first year as they adapt to their new life. Part of our commitment to Exodus is to assist with some financial gifts to help with rent expenses, and other funds will also assist these new families as we help them find jobs and adjust to everyday life in the United States. But Exodus can help us do more if we can find those homes.
We have an incredibly blessed membership with gifts and talents which I believe allow us to do more than we are asked. For me, this unique situation represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a voice in bringing more of these Afghan people into our community. Like my Hoosier soldiers who did more than they were asked on that first deployment, I am asking you to consider doing more. If you, or someone you know owns rental property or a home not currently in use, we would ask you to pray to consider helping us find a temporary home for one of these families (contact Maria Blake, firstname.lastname@example.org). St. Luke’s volunteers will organize around welcoming them to their new home, assist with any needed repairs and furnishing their residence and getting jobs in the local area to create a self-sustaining ability for them. It all begins with a home here in our own community….