VOICES

'You are our families': A Gold Star father's message to grieving Afghanistan families

Many Afghans have experienced freedom because of the sacrifices of our military and their families. It's a lasting legacy in support of our ideals.

Khizr Khan
Opinion contributor
The grave of Army Capt. Humayun Khan at Arlington National Cemetery.

Arlington National Cemetery is a hallowed place. Though I make the pilgrimage often, driving down Memorial Avenue and visiting my son's grave in Section 60 is always a sacred journey.

Seeing his name etched on a small alabaster stone swimming among so many others is always difficult. And as the sea of white stretches to the horizon, I can't help but be swept away by a current of memories of him: his first steps, his pride at winning ribbons on field day, his veneration of Arlington from a high school field trip, and his Commissioning Ceremony.

When I visit Section 60 and remember my son and his fellow fallen, memory guides me to the meaning of their sacrifice, to the meaning of the soft earth that now separates him from me. It is this hallowed ground that is so full of memory – and Memory is alive here, she walks and speaks. 

Comfort at darkest moment of loss

We have these sacred spaces for remembrance because memory is not only about the past. Memory, like her daughter, History, is about what the past means to us in the present, as we navigate to the future. We memorialize the sacrifice of these young men and women not simply because of the profound loss we feel, but because their vigilance cements a future for freedom and an open society.

Some have argued that our foreign wars have been needless and without lofty purpose, or attendant to our ideals. While these debates have merit in a free and open society, I know that the sacrifice of our fallen has provided a lasting legacy in direct support of our ideals. You see, I was born in another country without the freedoms and opportunities we now enjoy. Your station in life, your voice and your conscience were at the mercy of the powerful and zealous.

In the country of my birth, education was less a means to improve your lot and more an opportunity to imagine a different life, where conscience and voice were given breath and merit through hard work was rewarded. Many in Afghanistan today have experienced a generation of freedom because of the sacrifices of our military and their families. It is to them that the memory of freedom is owed. Liberation is not easily forgotten; Memory walks and speaks. A free Afghanistan will remember. 

The 'ultimate sacrifice':The 13 service members killed in Afghanistan airport bombing

Khizr and Ghazala Khan at the Democratic convention in August 2016 with a photo of their son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who died in Iraq.

In the recent terrorist attack at Kabul airport, our heroes offered their all in service of others. They sacrificed their all at the altar of democracy, and they and their families will never be forgotten by a grateful nation. They are the best of our nation; their families must know that the entire nation stands with them at this darkest time for the families of the fallen.

I know how I felt when, after the death of my son, an Amtrak employee at Union Station in Washington, D.C., recognized me, stepped out from behind the check-in counter, gave me a hug and whispered in my ear: “I also lost my son who was serving in the military, I know how you must be feeling. Please know the hole such loss creates in your heart will never be filled, but as time passes, you will get used to living with it, your pain will ease.”

His words were a comfort to me then and even today, when the memory of my son overwhelms me. I share this so others may find comfort at the darkest moment of loss of a loved one. 

Reminder of the knock at my door

Our president, Joe Biden, a military parent, knows their pain and loss personally and stands with them, and we as a nation must support our president at this time of national tragedy. There will be time to debate and disagree, but not now. Now is the time to stand united to show respect and dignity for the sacrifices made by our sons and daughters – those who died in service and those still serving in harm’s way.

The grave marker for Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004 in a roadside explosion.

My heart sank as I heard the news of the blast at the Kabul airport. It felt the same when we got the knock at our door by the Army chaplain on the death of our son in Iraq by a suicide bomber attack. He stopped the attack and saved the lives of scores of U.S. Army soldiers and local civilians at the gate of his camp in Baquba, Iraq.

I want the grieving families to know we stand with you; we celebrate the valor and sacrifice of our sons and daughters in service of others. They made this grateful nation the best of humanity by their selfless sacrifice. They were chosen to uplift all of us. We as a nation are grateful to them and you as their families. You are our families. 

May you have strength and grace and light.

Khizr Khan (@KMKhan_Law), a Pakistani immigrant, is a lawyer, founder of the Constitution Literacy and National Unity Center in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The second of his three sons, U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan, was killed in 2004 while preventing a suicide attack near Baqubah, Iraq, saving scores of U.S. soldiers and local civilians.