When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban last month, my heart broke. As a former military officer, I had traveled the country several times, commanding troops in the field and helping to build roads and bridges. The Afghan allies who worked alongside the American soldiers deserved better.
Their lives are now in great danger. To abandon them now is not American. Welcoming these allies and their families can also strengthen our country in the years to come.
I know because it’s my story. I came to America from Nigeria in 1996. I spent two decades in the US military, leading troops and transporting supplies across borders, before starting a supply chain consulting business in Dallas. . Today, I am a successful entrepreneur and effective manager for veteran and immigrant employees.
Refugees are more likely to start businesses than US citizens. They have higher retention rates, and after 25 years in the country, they have higher median incomes than the US average, according to New American Economy.
Afghan refugees are also well placed to help our armed forces. Afghans who come here on special immigrant visas have previously worked as interpreters and in other roles essential for the US military. They are bilingual, loyal to the United States, and have years of experience conducting high-stakes military operations. They are delicate negotiators and they are familiar with nation building, economic development and responding to humanitarian crises. We will need them and others like them to maintain alliances in destabilized regions like the Middle East.
The point is, our military needs more recruits, especially those with language skills. Forty-five languages ââare considered vital to our global operations, but only a small percentage of US-born recruits can speak any of them.
Complicated languages ââlike Arabic or Chinese require two to three years of intensive study for native English speakers. The military spends between $ 62,000 and $ 215,000 per serviceman to teach these skills, according to a study published in the Small Wars Journal. And even after all this time and money, the service member still may not have the same fluency or cultural competence as a native speaker.
After September 11, the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program was created to address military shortages, enabling non-citizens with essential health and language skills to serve. The program recruited some 10,400 immigrants, including around 900 Dreamers, before it was suspended in 2016. With 30,000 Afghan SIVs and their families likely to settle here, there’s no better time for the Biden administration restore this program.
During my 20 year career in the military, I have seen how effective linguistic and cultural mastery can be. In 2008, I was part of an anti-terrorism unit in Nigeria, a multi-faceted country with over 500 languages. I speak three Nigerian languages ââand understand the cultural nuances of life there. This has given our unit a significant advantage and improved relations on both sides.
Yes, we could use interpreters, but we lose a lot in translation – and having soldiers who speak the language shows that we are fully invested. In Afghanistan, whenever someone spoke Dari or native Farsi, the mission tended to be very successful. When Afghans heard US military immigrants speak their language, it had a huge impact on them. Language is one of the most effective ways to break down barriers.
Our global influence depends on our ability to understand language and culture. The Chief of Staff of the United States Army, General Raymond Odierno, once said that “the best equipped army in the world can still lose a war if it does not understand the people it is fighting.”
Our leaders must welcome our Afghan allies with open arms and then provide them and all immigrants with opportunities to serve in our armed forces. When I’m among my military colleagues, it doesn’t matter where we come from. We are all patriots fighting for the country we love. In the end, that’s all that matters.
Adebayo Adeleke is a retired U.S. Army major, supply chain consultant, and lecturer at Sam Houston State University. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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