For the past two weeks, veterans and active military men and women from around the world have been posting photos of themselves on social media with the hashtag #iwillprotectyou.
The campaign, which began with a single Facebook post from Army veteran Kerri Peek, was launched in support of Sofia Yassini, an 8-year-old Muslim-American girl from Texas, who — after watching Donald Trump on TV call for banning Muslims from entering the U.S. — got scared that the military was going to come and kick her and her family out of the country.
“It was the first time that it really drove home to me that we’re in a dangerous place right now,” Sofia’s mother Melissa Yassini — who works with the Islamic Association of North Texas — told Upworthy.
Since Peek’s hashtag went viral, hundreds of veterans and active duty military members have contacted the Yassinis to express their support, according to Melissa.
Upworthy contacted five of them and asked them why they chose to reach out to Sofia.
Here’s what they told us, in their own words (many of those who are currently serving noted that they are speaking for themselves only, and not the U.S. military):
Sgt. Amanda Hils
“The idea that a child would be scared in our own [country], of our own military, is not something I’m comfortable with,” Hils told Upworthy.
Hils, who was deployed in Afghanistan in 2011-12, recalled feeling heartbroken that any American child would view her fellow service members as a threat. While many veterans and active military men and women wrote messages, Hils felt it was important to show Sofia what it looks like to have a woman in uniform looking out for her.
“If she’s able to put faces to that sentiment, I think that’s great.”
Above all else, she believes speaking out was the right — and necessary — thing to do, and that the man in charge would agree.
“At the very least, I’m echoing the sentiments of our commander-in-chief. He’s made it very clear: Muslims are not our enemy.”
Lt. Cmdr. Montel Williams (retired)
“Were anyone to try to force your daughter, an American citizen, to leave this country on the basis of her faith, my oath would require me to act,” the talk show host wrote on Facebook.
Unbeknownst to many who watch him on TV, Williams served 22 years between the Marines and the Navy — retiring with the rank of lieutenant commander — and remains an active, vocal supporter of veterans’ causes to this day.
“Members of the military aren’t given a choice who they protect, of what faith, what race, what sexual orientation, whatever,” Jonathan Franks, a spokesperson for Williams told Upworthy.
According to Franks, Williams is heavily involved with a campaign to secure the release of Amir Hekmati — an American citizen currently being held in Iran — and believes anti-Muslim bigotry from Donald Trump and others shows the kind of distrust that makes progress on such issues difficult.
“We’re not going to solve a whole lot of problems by alienating people in the Muslim community,” Franks said.
“No one will be coming for you, so long as I breathe,” Brandt, a former paratrooper who served two tours in Iraq, wrote on Facebook.
In addition to showing Sofia support, Brandt was moved to post #iwillprotectyou to help rebuke the Islamophobic sentiments that he believes are distressingly common among some of his fellow veterans.
“I’m not saying all vets are represented in that group, maybe not even most of them,” Brandt told Upworthy, “But [that] crowd is certainly the loudest on social media it seems to me.”
The message Brandt hopes to send his comrades-in-arms?
“I want them to know that I see the Islamophobic movements that are happening in our nation are in direct conflict with the ideals of USA,” Brandt told Upworthy. “Not only will I physically defend my brothers and sisters if it comes down to that, but I will proactively step up and be a voice of compassion to my peers.”
Lt. Cristina Trecate
“When you’re eight years old, that shouldn’t be something you’re scared about,” Trecate told Upworthy. “You should probably be scared about when your crayon breaks, what color you’re going to use next, not being kicked out of your home.”
Trecate enlisted in the New Jersey National Guard at 19 and spent her early service as a truck driver before heading to college and receiving an officer’s commission. Now a field artillery officer in the Pennsylvania National Guard, she emphasized that her duty is to protect all Americans.
“I would just want her to know that she shouldn’t be afraid,” Trecate said. “She can feel safe at night, knowing that there are hundreds of thousands of people, clearly, who are willing to protect her and be there for her and defend her.”
More than anything, Trecate wants Sofia to know that she’ll never be kicked out of her home, no matter what.
“None of us are going to let that happen.”
Melissa told Upworthy she feels honored a campaign her daughter inspired has touched so many people, and she has made it a point to respond to as many as she can.
“I’m always a believer that love wins over evil and hate, and it does every time,” Melissa said.
For Melissa, the best evidence is that Sofia has gone back to being a normal 8-year-old girl.
“One day she just said, ‘Mommy, I’m not worried anymore,'” Melissa said.