Most Americans are well aware of the refugee crisis in Syria today. The five-year-old civil war has displaced millions of civilians, nearly half of them children. Just across the border in neighboring Iraq, Daesh — better known to the world as ISIS — is displacing millions and conducting genocide against Christians and Yezidis.
For Vietnam and Operation Iraqi Freedom combat veteran Richard Campos and thousands of American veterans like him who willingly fought and sacrificed for the rights and freedoms of the Iraqi people, this news is devastating. Campos, also a retired sheriff’s deputy, now works tirelessly on their behalf, inspired by his partner and best friend Doug, whose son — Lt. Colonel Mark Taylor, M.D., a surgeon with the 82nd Airborne — was tragically killed during an attack on Fallujah just hours before he was to return home. Campos began conducting self-funded humanitarian missions to Iraq in 2008, and what he found when he arrived was even more dire than he expected.
“Tents that once protected entire families from temperatures reaching 115 degrees, [are now] deteriorating before their eyes,” Campos told the Lodi News-Sentinel in September. “Young children [are] developing skin diseases and a rash of illnesses from just a lack of simple hygiene. ISIS on one side [is] determined to kill them should they leave their compounds. Death from a simple lack of concern by the rest of the world, should they decide to stay.”
In June 2014, conditions deteriorated significantly when ISIS brutally attacked Mosul, once the largest home to Christians in Iraq. More than a half million people were forced to flee for their lives. Over the next month, ISIS continued their sweep through Northern Iraqi cities, leaving utter devastation in its path. Weeks later, in August 2014, an attack on Sinjar forced an estimated 40,000-50,000 Yezidis to flee into the Sinjar mountains, where they were stranded without basic necessary essentials like food, water, and medical supplies.
During that time, ISIS continued to commit unfathomable acts against the Iraqi people, raping young girls and women, beheading men as women and children watched helplessly, massacring entire families, and capturing others and selling them into slavery. The northern Kurdish region, already overrun with nearly a million Syrian refugees, became home overnight to a million displaced Iraqi Christians and Yezidis. Because they are displaced within their own country, the Iraqi people are left to fend for themselves, abandoned by their own government and largely ignored on the world stage.
Campos never wavered in his commitment to the mission. He started a nonprofit organization called International Veterans Alliance through which he, and a task force of fellow veterans, continued providing humanitarian assistance to the region. Many of the veterans joining Campos in his efforts continue to find great healing through giving back to the people they fought so hard to liberate.
“A good companion shortens the longest road.” A Kurdish proverb inspired further assistance, this time a different kind. Many of the Iraqis Campos and his team spoke with during their travels longed to tell their story, so he recruited first-time filmmaker Jennifer Salcido, who taught Political Science at the University of Dohuk in Kurdistan, and documentarian Matthew Hall to begin the task. The result: a compelling feature-length documentary called “The Longest Road.”
In honor of the refugees and the veterans whose story they were eager to tell, the film’s co-directors and their production team followed in Campos’ footsteps and self-funded their portion of the project. The team took two 10-day trips to Iraq in 2015, where they spent eight days each, filming usually six to eight hours a day. During their third trip earlier this month, the team surprised the Iraqi refugee camps by showing them the short version of what will be an approximately 75-minute film released later this spring. For the very first time, their voices are being heard.
Told from the perspective of a soldier’s return to the battleground, “The Longest Road” features interviews with many American soldiers who served in the region, and allows Christians and Yezidis, now displaced, the opportunity to tell their own story.
“Their homes have been burned down, their churches have been destroyed and desecrated, the family that they had has been taken away from them,” says co-director Jennifer Salcido, who explained that these people just want to go home, to return to their normal, to begin to rebuild. “This is a story about redemption for a people who have suffered so much.”
In the spirit of the Kurdish proverb that inspired the film, Campos and his team hope to to inspire a call to action on behalf of American veterans and the Christians and Yezidis who are suffering genocide in what Salcido calls “the very heart of Christianity.” They are asking people to, first and foremost, share their struggle, commit to pray, and to help raise awareness by sharing the documentary with others once it’s released. They hope Americans will be inspired to volunteer with organizations that are assisting the Iraqi people and veterans here at home. All of proceeds from the film will go directly to those efforts and anyone wishing to donate toward ongoing efforts by Campos may do so by visiting International Veterans Alliance.
“I know that I cannot have any impact on a million,” says a doctor interviewed in “The Longest Road,” “but for me, maybe it’s enough to have [an] impact on 10.” It is in this spirit that Richard Campos has dedicated his life and work. He may be just one man, but he is a man making an enormous difference in the lives of countless individuals as he walks alongside them down the longest road.
This article was originally written by me and published by Opportunity Lives on March 18, 2016. Photo credit: The Longest Road.