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Wednesday, December 15, 2004


Arab-Americans in military juggle patriotism, suspicion

The community is torn between loyalty to their homelands and pride in the U.S.

By Jennifer Brooks / The Detroit News


Brandy Baker / The Detroit News

"I had friends who stopped talking to me. I had friends who supported my decision. I had friends who called in to the recruiter themselves," says Lebanese-American Abraham Gebara, 20, who signed up to serve eight years in the U.S. Army.

DEARBORN -- When Pfc. Abraham Gebara joined the Army, he didn't exactly expect his neighbors to support him by tying a yellow ribbon as he marched off to war.

But he didn't expect them to react by ripping the "Army of One" bumper sticker off his car, either.

"I had friends who stopped talking to me," said the 20-year-old Dearborn resident who had dreamed of becoming a soldier since he was 7 years old. He shrugs off criticism and replaces the bumper stickers as fast as they vanish. "I had friends who supported my decision. I had friends who called in to the recruiter themselves."

These are difficult times for Arab-Americans, as their country wages war on Arab soil, and military recruiters come calling -- asking the community for help as translators and liaisons in the war zone.

An estimated 3,500 Arab-Americans serve in the U.S. armed forces. The number is a fraction of the 12,000 who wore the uniform during World War II, but still a point of fierce pride for many in the community, who have faced suspicion and outright hostility since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Imad Hamad, Midwest regional director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, says some Arab-Americans who want to join up are hesitant now because of the suspicion they have encountered from other Americans in the wake of September 11.

But Uncle Sam wants them.

"It's of tremendous value to us to have (soldiers) who speak the language, who are very familiar with the culture, who can help build relations between the United States and the people there," said Lt. Col. William E. Spadie, commander of the Army's Great Lakes Recruiting Battalion, who is spearheading the drive to increase Arab-American recruitment.

For the past two years, the military has offered enlistment bonuses, special training and created a new designation for recruits who join the individual ready reserve as translator aides.

Even with the support of local Arab and Chaldean community leaders, the recruitment drive in Metro Detroit has gone slowly.

Spadie said he recruited 23 Arab language translators last year. Gebara is one of two new recruits to join in the last quarter of this year.

Hamad, of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, is one of the community leaders who has partnered with the Army to encourage new recruits. Recruiters have set up booths at community events and taken part in festivals and community meetings. Still, Hamad said he understands the community's reluctance to sign up.

In most immigrant communities, the military offers a welcome opportunity for job training, an education and a sense of belonging. But Hamad said the military has become linked in many people's minds with the hardships and suspicion they have faced since September 11.

"The many injustices, unpleasant experiences, have left heavy marks on people's minds and hearts," Hamad said. "So that even if someone wants to join the Army, it makes them more hesitant -- this heavy burden of being under a cloud of suspicion because you are Arab."

It's a dilemma that Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jamal Baadani knows well. A 20-year veteran of the Marine Corps who grew up in Dearborn, Baadani founded the Association for Patriotic Arab Americans in the Military within a week of the 2001 terrorist attacks. The group is dedicated to raising public awareness about Arab-Americans in the military, and to celebrating a history of military service that dates back to the American Revolution.

"We have to keep proving our patriotism," said Baadani, who just returned from a tour of duty in Yemen as a part of Operation Enduring Freedom. "I go around, telling people, 'Hey, we've been here for over 200 years. We're Americans.' "

His fellow Americans, he said, need to "separate the difference between Islamic fundamentalism and Islam, and the difference between the Arab-Americans living in America and the 19 (Arabs) who flew the planes into the World Trade Center ."

The APAAM e-mail list has been humming with the news that one of its members, Lance Cpl. Ismaeel Al-Thaibani, a Marine Corps reservist stationed in Garden City, N.Y., had been seriously injured while on night patrol in Fallujah. Members also shared the story of National Guard Spc. David Roustum, killed in an ambush in November in Baghdad .

The 22-year-old college senior had rejected his Syrian-born father's offer to send him to Syria to avoid combat when his unit was activated.

After his death, his father told their hometown newspaper how his son reacted to the idea of moving to Syria : "Dad, I would never do that. This is my country and I will do whatever it takes."


Brandy Baker / The Detroit News

"I love my country, and somebody's got to protect it," says Abraham Gebara, who has replaced an "Army of One" sticker that repeatedly has been torn off his car in Dearborn .

Arab-Americans in the military

Pvt. Nathan Badeen, Revolutionary War: It's believed Badeen was shanghaied from his home near present-day Syria and pressed into service aboard a French merchant vessel. Eventually, he escaped or was put ashore in Canada and made his way to the American colonies. On Jan. 1, 1776, he voluntarily enlisted with the Continental Army's 18th Regiment out of Cambridge , Mass. .

Lt. Alfred Naifeh, World War II: Naifeh was serving on a supply ship, the USS Meredith when it was attacked during a Japanese air raid in the Solomon Island on July 5, 1941. For two days, Naifeh worked ceaselessly to locate and rescue his wounded shipmates and place them aboard life rafts. On the third day, he died of exhaustion after fighting off shark attacks and rescuing shipmates. Gen. George A. Joulwan, Vietnam veteran and former Supreme Allied Commander, Europe : Joulwan, who retired in 1997, began his long military career with two tours of duty in Vietnam.Gen. John Abizaid, commander, U.S. Central Command: Abizaid oversees American military operations in Iraq and a 25-country region from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia . Source: Association for Patriotic Arab Americans in the Military

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Baadani was a young Marine recruit when a suicide bomber attacked the Marine barracks in Beiruit , Lebanon , and killed 241 U.S. servicemen. The experience, he said, shook him so badly that he turned his back on his culture and his faith for years.

In the shattering aftermath of September 11, Baadani saw a chance to save other young Arab-Americans from the same painful experience -- to give them the support network he never had.

"I grew up in Egypt during the Yom Kippur War. When I came to America , I understood what freedom was. I wanted to do my part, to give something back to this country," he said.

Although there have been high-profile cases of Muslims in the military who have come under suspicion, Baadani said he never experienced any backlash from his comrades after September 11. But back in Dearborn , his relatives were not as lucky.

The inspiration for the Association of Patriotic Arab Americans in the Military began with a call from his uncle, who begged Baadani to send him a photo of himself in uniform. His uncle's co-workers -- people he had been working with for decades -- had begun avoiding him after the terrorist attacks. He wanted a picture of his nephew, the Marine, to remind them that he was an American too.

But the same uniform that reassured some, alarmed others. Not everyone in the Arab-American community welcomed the idea of their sons and daughters marching off to fight a war on Arab soil.

"Our community, the Arab-American community, needs to understand that we have a duty and an obligation to serve -- be it in the military, civil service, law enforcement, what have you. They also have to understand the difference between policy and duty," he said.

Gebara, who is Lebanese-American, grew up hearing stories about the American soldiers who helped his father and brother in Kuwait during the first Gulf War. Joining the Army is something he says "has been in my blood" since he was 7 years old. Although he signed on to serve as an Arabic language translator, he hopes eventually to train as an Apache helicopter pilot.

"I'm a patriot, I love my country, and somebody's got to protect it."

"The many injustices, unpleasant experiences, have left heavy marks on people's minds and hearts."

You can reach Jennifer Brooks at (313) 222-2548 or [email protected]








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