“I have your back”

I read a wonderful story yesterday.
It was a story that began with an anguished mother who had spent an entire night comforting her eight-year-old daughter. The family is American Muslim, and the young girl had been watching the television news with her grandmother when she heard Donald Trump’s call to deport refugees and ban all Muslims from coming to the United States.
The young girl went off to pack up her treasures, afraid that soldiers were going to appear at her door and force her family to move.
As she comforted her daughter, the mother had to come to terms with the idea of just how dangerous this kind of rhetoric is. And in the morning, she turned to Facebook to pour out her anguish.
The response she got was unexpected, and heartwarming. She began to hear from US Army veterans, many of them parents themselves, who wanted to reassure her daughter that they would never be a part of driving American Muslims from their homes.
“Salamalakum Melissa!” said the first soldier. “Please show this picture of me to your daughter. Tell her I am a Mama too and as a soldier I will protect her from the bad guys.” Later, she told Upworthy that “It bothered me all night. Stuck in my craw, so to speak. This rhetoric and fear, hate, and violence is not okay. It’s not the United States that I would fight for. I was awake all night.”
She turned to social media to call on other vets to respond, creating a hash tag called #IWillProtectYou – and the messages of support began pouring in.
“Let Muslim children know that we will not hurt them. That they are safe here in America. That we will protect innocents as we always have and by added benefit keeping our oaths to uphold and defend the Constitution”, said one vet. Another one said: “I am not Muslim, but when anyone says the Army that I served with will go on to remove Muslims from my country, they’ll have to take me too.”

Coincidentally, it was not the only story I read yesterday about what soldiers I know call “I have your back”.
In The Times of Israel, I read about Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, who was the ranking US officer in a German prisoner of war camp during WWII. Some of the soldiers who were there were Jewish Americans.
The Nazi guards wanted the Jewish soldiers separated – they would be sent off to labour camps where they would most likely die. Edmonds spoke up: “We are all Jews here”, he told the Nazis, as all 1,000 American prisoners in that camp stepped forward.
The story of his heroism, which saved at least 200 Jewish American soldiers, remained hidden for years. He never talked about it, not even to his son, who uncovered the story serendipitously. But when the story emerged, he was posthumously recognized with Israel’s highest honor for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II – one of the “Righteous Among Nations” remembered at Yad Vashem. He is only the fifth American named, and the first serviceman – and the first whose actions saved the lives of other Americans.
These are two inspiring examples of what soldiers understand as the concept of “having your back”.
I didn’t fully understand this concept until my time as an election observer in Georgia, almost a decade ago. My partner was a retired Dutch general, who had once commanded 45,000 men at the Dutch military college. I had never been a soldier.
When you work as a long-term election observation team, you spend a lot of time together. We had dinner together every night, and we travelled long distances around the area we were responsible for. We had a lot of time to talk.
It was in working with him that I grasped the idea of “I have your back” and what that means. Someone else I know calls it the concept of “honour”, meaning that you would lay down your life for your fellow soldier. It is not a concept that most of us as civilians ever experience in its full meaning.
But this week, those army veterans in the United States demonstrated so clearly what it means to “have your back” – and that for them, this concept applies not just to fellow soldiers but to those of us they are sworn to protect. And I am touched, and grateful.
And as I listened, this morning, to an interview on CBC radio about Canadian participation in the co-ordinated assault on Daesh which ended with a discussion of how Canadian soldiers are affected by their participation in such missions, I thought about how we need to tell them that “we have your backs”, both when they are in the field and when they are home.
Whatever decisions are made about how Canada reshapes its participation in the attempts to bring peace to Syria, I hope with all my heart that our message to our soldiers will be “we have your backs”. And “thank you” – for now and always.