A Conversation with our Director of External Affairs Mariah Smith About Her Past and Continued Work with No One Left Behind

May 2, 2023
Employee Spotlight

Mariah Smith is our Director of External Affairs and so much more. Before joining us, she was a Military Police Officer for more than 20 years as well as a Legislative Liaison, a Congressional Fellow in the House of Representatives, and a Councilmember for the town of Stephens City, VA. While on active duty, she served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, and the Horn of Africa. She graduated from the FBI National Academy and holds a master’s degree in security management. She also serves in a volunteer capacity as the Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors for No One Left Behind, a non-profit organization that assists Afghan and Iraqi interpreters. We sat down on a bright spring morning to discuss her life, career, and a cause near and dear to her heart.

Nota Bene: The following Q&A has been edited for readability.

Who is Mariah Smith?

I grew up loving animals and the outdoors. That defined my childhood, and now, it’s coming to define my adulthood as well, particularly after being out of the Army. Although I spent 20 years in the Army, I realized many years ago that I didn't want that to be all of who I was. I just wanted it to be something meaningful that I did for a period in my life. Now, living in Virginia on my farm in the Shenandoah Valley, I finally have a sense of putting down roots in one place, becoming an active member of a small community, and bringing all the things I love to make the place where I live now a good place to be, for everyone. That's been something I feel like I've grown into these past several years since I've lived in Virginia and since I've looked at making this big transition in life, from one career to another. And honestly, I see this current career and phase of life that I'm in as more fulfilling than my time in the Army—as honorable and as adventurous as it was.

In addition to taking care of the horses, bees, ducks, chickens, and foster kittens on the farm, I also love to read and write fiction. One of the very first Twilight Zone episodes is called Time Enough At Last and is about a man who loves to read. When the apocalypse happens he's left alone as the last person on Earth with just his library. The Twilight Zone twist is that he steps on his glasses, and he can’t read anymore, however my dream sometimes is that I would get to a point in my life where I just have as many hours in the day as I want to read, write, and study topics of interest.

Of the many careers you’d led——which have you most enjoyed?

I enjoy aspects of all of them because I see them as entwined and complimentary. Things I have learned in previous jobs in life have allowed me to come into jobs that I really enjoy now like working for Accrete and like my work with Soldier for Life.

My first few years in the Army as a military police officer, I went to Korea, September 11 happened, I went to Djibouti, Africa, with my platoon, and then my platoon was in the initial invasion into Iraq. Those condensed years between 2000 and 2004 were my first four years in the Army. And they were the years that I was really immersed in leading soldiers every day and being part of a small unit. These were really the most impactful and formative years of my adult life. And those were when I had experiences that I felt were truly life-changing.

My life took this whole twist after joining the Army, and September 11 happened, and the U.S. began this series of deployments that lasted 20 years. To be caught up in the start of that with a group of other people was a defining life experience. Twenty years later, I felt finished, I had accomplished what I wanted to do in the military, and I was excited to retire. Some people have a hard time leaving. They don’t want to leave the military. It’s like leaving a family. But I felt like it had shaped me in the way that I needed it to, and I was really excited to begin my civilian life and to find a company like Accrete and the people at the company. It felt like a natural progression and a really exciting one.

Tell me about your tours in Afghanistan.

I did three tours in Afghanistan, and they were my fourth, fifth, and sixth deployments overall between the years 2007 and 2014. Each Afghanistan tour was different. But each time, we

worked closely with the Afghan people, who were also trying to form this new stable government based on some principles that we all universally believe in, like equality, freedom of choice, and safety. That was the defining characteristic. I had the feeling that I was helping other good people do something to improve their circumstances.

The first tour in 2007, I was part of the 82nd airborne, which had been a life goal of mine—to be a paratrooper. That was a 15-month tour in Afghanistan, in Khost Province, where we worked with the Afghan Army and Police.

The second tour, I was a congressional liaison for NATO Training Mission back to the Armed Services Committee and the Defense Appropriations Committee [in Congress]. That was my most hopeful time in Afghanistan. It was 2010.  There were dozens and dozens of allied nations working together in Afghanistan. The army and police were beginning to grow and stabilize the government, the Ministry of Defense, and the Ministry of the Interior. Everyone was very hopeful that this was a true new permanent phase in Afghanistan.

And in the last tour in 2014, I was back working as a military police officer in the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. And we were at Bagram, which is the main airbase in Afghanistan. That was the end of the Obama administration. We were focused on withdrawing from Afghanistan and closing down some of our involvement. That felt less hopeful. Equipment was being stolen in Pakistan that we were trying to ship out of the country, and we were involved in investigating Green on Blue shootings. The most defining moment of that tour was when we had to scrap some aircraft we had bought the Afghan Air Force and trained them on years prior because they couldn’t sustain the maintenance for the aircraft.

What was the initial mission of No One Left Behind, and how did things change during and after August 2021?

No One Left Behind started in 2014 when Janis Shinwari, our founder, came to the U.S. through the Special Immigrant Visa program after having served as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

The guys in his unit raised $35,000 to help him get started in addition to the benefits he would receive from the government as a newly arrived immigrant and green card holder. When he got here, he was reunited with the Americans that he had served with. But he also went through all the confusion and bureaucracy of restarting life in a new country. He realized that there was no organization specifically for Special Immigrant Visa recipients—people who obtain visas through a program created solely for Afghan and Iraqi interpreters or people who worked in similar roles with the U.S. government.

The organization then was focused mainly on helping people resettle in the United States. There was not, then, the driving tragedy of trying to help get people out of Afghanistan in a way that there is right now. It focused on helping people in those first six to nine months of resettlement, when you're struggling through things like getting a driver's license, getting a lease on a place, finding a job, finding a car. It also focused on advocating to the U.S. government, and in particular the State Department, to reform the visa program because it's a 14-step visa process that takes three, five, nine years to process. It’s incredibly complex, and it’s kind of a broken system. We still do those two things: advocacy and resettlement. Then in 2021, we added evacuation.

Getting people over here is one thing. Truly helping them flourish is quite another. But that’s exactly what No One Left Behind does. Tell us a bit more about this.

I'm really glad you asked me about this because this is my favorite part of No One Left Behind. Afghan evacuation is this compulsion about which we all feel this desperation to get as many people out as possible. Afghans who worked with the U.S. government are targeted by the Taliban, and hundreds have been killed because of their work with us. It's the immediate need, but we’re also focused on helping people rebuild the lives that they've had to leave behind in Afghanistan to restart here. And that's such a daunting task. The folks that are coming here have years of education, years of career experience, years of wealth that were taken away from them by external forces—all in a short period of time. They deserve an environment that helps them rebuild and reach their potential. So while we focus on the immediate needs in that first year, we are also focused on building programs that long-term help people flourish, like access to education and certifications for themselves and their children. That’ll take them from working their initial hourly-wage job to getting recertified or newly certified in a skill set they care about that can bring them to a middle-class or upper-middle-class type job in a few years.

Access to transportation is another big thing. We have a no-interest car loan program to help people get access to reliable transportation, which is key to employability. We're also looking at how to help people build credit because they come here without a credit profile, and that makes it hard to rent a good apartment or get a loan for school.

We’re also building a mentor program for people to rebuild their network and get into career fields that they enjoy. These are more long-term programs that really take them through the first five years of being here and getting reestablished in a career and feeling that sense of permanence, of financial stability.

Visa processing is heavily stymied by bureaucracy. Might AI be able to help streamline it?

Yeah, I absolutely think AI could be used. It's a matter of getting an organization like the State Department to embrace advanced technology.

One issue, and this is less about AI and more the initial problem of data management, but there’s a data collection and analysis issue alone of conducting background checks on these folks, translating documents, etc. They have to feed multiple pieces of information into a system that right now is being handled by a limited number of human caseworkers. Even just a better data collection and data management, and data interpretation system would greatly facilitate the process. I know our AI is so much more capable than that, but that's at the level that we could get started with AI.

And then there’s another aspect. There's always a security consideration. That's something that the State Department does when they look into background checks on people who are applying to come here. Because they are screening tens of thousands of applications, the U.S. government does take seriously trying to balance being stringent enough to make sure that there is no fraud or previous involvement in terrorism so that we are not bringing a threat to the U.S. homeland.  That makes me think of tools that Accrete AI has like Argus for Social Media Intelligence. You know, things that look at the whole picture of a person to try and make a determination about their connections.

Accrete AI works with both commercial and defense clients. Obviously, you’re quite experienced with the latter. Were you drawn to the company for its promotion and facilitation of national security initiatives?

I knew as I left the Army that I wanted to stay involved somehow in national security. And I saw Accrete AI as a really fascinating way to do that.

Just because something falls out of the news cycle doesn’t mean it’s ended. What parting words would you say on the subject of Afghanistan’s ongoing crisis?

When I speak to the people that are left behind, the main thing they ask is to please continue to elevate their voices. They have no way to reach the outside world, and this issue cannot be forgotten. Memory is short, and news cycles are even shorter. But our hope is that this stays in the consciousness of the rest of the world and that ultimately then somehow changes the situation of the people who are stuck in Afghanistan. Maybe that's done through storytelling, through interviews like what you're doing now—where you are giving, I see, the people of Afghanistan a voice just by being one more venue where this is read about and remembered and makes the rest of the world think: “That's not right. What can I do to change it? How could I be involved?”

Right now, we see our role as one of helping as many people leave as we can. But also, we see ourselves as bearing witness to and helping in the accounting of what has happened and accounting for the people that are left behind and are in danger.. We want to really hold space and give voice to them while we look and wait for a situation to change that allows their lives to be better.

Anything else you’d like to cover?

I have been really touched and grateful by how Accrete AI has supported me in doing this. The interest from everyone just in asking about what's going on is from Prashant [Bhuyan] and Bill [William Wall] on down. Everyone in the company that I've talked to about this has been so genuinely interested and compassionate about the issue. The team has shown me a lot of generosity in allowing me to participate in something that is very consuming.

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