OPINION — Master Sgt. Luis F. DeLeon-Figueroa and Master Sgt. Jose J. Gonzalez. Those names might not be that familiar to most. But their families, friends and fellow soldiers won’t forget them. The two Americans were killed in combat in Afghanistan last week, U.S. officials said, which brings the total killed this year to 14, one more than all of last year.
This is the news that disappears quickly from the headlines, as politicians and pundits try to make sense of just what happened at the G-7 meeting in France, for instance, and the latest chaos at the top. When the Amazon is burning, and the president of the United States skips the climate change meeting, as his buddy Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro takes time to insult the wife of the host country’s leader, it’s more distracting than usual.
But it is still astonishing how little attention the 18-year American engagement in Afghanistan seems to attract in the country’s consciousness and conversation. Perhaps that’s because the volunteer military allows so many to put that particular kind of service out of mind.
The families of the men and women who choose to serve don’t have that luxury.
However, even those who don’t have a loved one deployed to a hot spot should be paying attention for what is and is not happening. Negotiations continue on an agreement that would bring U.S. troops home if the Taliban promises to cut al-Qaida ties, and to prevent terrorist groups from gaining a foothold. Sticking points have reportedly been over U.S. demands for a Taliban cease-fire and a pledge for talks with Afghan officials. Though usually a Trump supporter, Sen. Lindsey Graham wants to ensure America’s national security is not jeopardized.
Active-duty military and veterans are also being drawn into the politically contentious issue of immigration. Sweeping changes in immigration policy announced this summer include a review of the “parole in place.”
“Parole in place enables a soldier serving in Afghanistan, for instance, not to worry that a spouse at home who entered the U.S. illegally might be thrown out of the country while the soldier is deployed,” reported NPR. “The procedures are changing as the U.S. government ramps up enforcement proceedings, including against veterans and their family members — sometimes in ways that violate the government’s own procedures.”
Changes in the “public charge”rules, which make attaining status more difficult, even for legal residents who use certain government programs, also could affect veterans and their families. Pro Publica reported that “the rule is so sloppily written that it ended up treating immigrants who are married to U.S. citizens more harshly than immigrants married to noncitizens.”
“Active-duty service members who are immigrant noncitizens are allowed to use benefits without having it weigh against them as a ‘public charge’ in the future. So are the family members of active-duty immigrant service members. But immigrants who are the spouses or children of active-duty service members who are U.S. citizens are not included in the exception, meaning their use of benefits while their spouses were on active duty could jeopardize their future in the U.S.”
You don’t have to speculate about the effect of such worries on military readiness for those who already have plenty to be concerned about.
The military has been one institution that has represented the diversity of the country. The Council on Foreign Relations last year reported 2016 figures that among enlisted recruits, 43 percent of men and 56 percent of women were Hispanic or a racial minority.
It’s a tribute to their patriotism that minorities, since this country’s founding, have chosen the military despite discrimination they may face in society or service. There is a cost in morale and more when division and partisanship seem to infect every corner of the American political scene.
Stories about the latest additions to a sad casualty list honored the lives of the two Green Berets. DeLeon-Figueroa, 31, of Chicopee, Massachusetts, leaves his fiancée, two young daughters and a step-daughter. He was described as “good-natured,” and someone who “overcame challenges.” Gonzalez, 35, of La Puente, California, is survived by his wife, Brenda, and two children, according to a verified GoFundMe campaign set up in his honor; he was a veteran of seven deployments and was previously wounded.
“It was an honor having them serve within the ranks. … They were a part of our family, and will not be forgotten,” said Col. John W. Sannes, 7th Group commander, in a statement.
America owes it to them, and all who serve bravely despite the risks, to resist the distraction – and remember, too.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.