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‘Don't Ask Me To Take Off The Uniform’

By Lyric Wallwork Winik
Published: April 17, 2005

Arab-American soldiers face pressures beyond uncertain deployments and battlefield front lines. Like Americans of German or Japanese heritage in earlier wars, they fight an enemy who may speak the same language and share a common culture. Increasing the pressure, critics in the Arab-American community hotly challenge the war in Iraq and often, in fact, oppose military service by Arab-Americans. We asked PARADE Washington Correspondent Lyric Wallwork Winik to probe the questions and issues Arab-American soldiers face at this difficult time.

Gunnery Sgt. Jamal Baadani is looking for the right words. Not because his English is spotty but because nothing seems to accurately convey the complexity of his emotions. Finally he says, “It’s kind of like in Vietnam.” He’s not talking about the Vietnam of military analysts but of the fate all those young American men faced when they returned home. “Many Americans think we’re suspect, and many in our own community are so against what we’re doing,” says Baadani, 40, who was born in Egypt, spent 12 years on active duty with the Marines and three more in the Reserve. “Some Arab-Americans say, ‘You guys are contributing to the deaths of innocent lives and destroying another country,’ or, ‘How can you kill your own kind?’” he explains. “We have to defend ourselves to our own community. We have to explain why we’re proud of serving.”

Baadani is one of an estimated 3500 Arab-Americans (the Pentagon does not keep official figures) who serve in the U.S. armed forces, out of 2.6 million total active duty, National Guard and Reserve personnel. Though their numbers are tiny—fewer than 1% of all troops—they range from the lowliest enlisted man up to the top commander for the Middle East and Central Asia, Gen. John Abizaid, head of Central Command and a Lebanese-American. Their stories and opinions are, I found, as varied as the countries from which they come.

“It’s hard when all Arabs are grouped
into one lump culture.” –1st Lt. Eric Rahman

Some, like Baadani, have felt the greatest sting of prejudice from fellow Arab-Americans—he has even received thinly veiled death threats—rather than the broader American community. Others are hurt that, while they have put on an American military uniform, they still get searched in airports, have trouble getting their utilities turned on after a move, or even have had their children called “Taliban” or “terrorists.” Some soldiers feel almost no kinship with the Arab world, describing “failed societies” and “closed-minded thinking,” while a few wonder if they have assimilated a bit too much in America and regret not being fluent in Arabic.

Wary of both their own community and the views of other Americans, some Arab-Americans in the military are reluctant to be identified or speak publicly for fear of reprisals. Baadani, who advocates for Arab-Americans in uniform, says, “My family was given a home in America. I joined the military to thank America. There are parts of Middle East policy that I disagree with. But just because you’re angry over policies, don’t ask me to take off the uniform.”

Soldiers First

Though they grapple with complex issues and emotions, every Arab-American soldier I spoke with expressed pride in serving in the U.S. military. “I have a commitment first and foremost to my Marines,” says Master Sgt. Osama Shofani, 37, a Jordanian-born Palestinian who came to the U.S. at age 10 with his tight-knit Catholic family. “I can’t even express in words how deep my commitment goes.” Shofani, who chose the Marine Corps over a planned career in medicine, has received both a valor award and a Purple Heart for his service in Iraq.

Cpl. Abdul S. Montaser, 23, raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., says, “My dad came here for a better life. In Yemen, some of my relatives still live in mud huts. There was nothing for us there.” Before college, Montaser joined the Marine Corps Reserve. After the devastating 9/11 attacks, he was called up for active duty. In 2003, he headed to the front lines in Iraq.

“When people question your loyalty as an American,
that tugs at you.” –Sgt. Omar Masry

Montaser, too, has heard disparaging comments from his community. “I just say, ‘Listen, dude, this country has done everything for me, for my dad.’ Here you have the freedom to walk down the street and not worry about the police snatching you off the street. Most Americans don’t appreciate that.”

In a voice tinged with frustration, Montaser—whose cousin, another Marine reservist, was severely wounded in a bombing in Fallujah—adds: “Every time an American soldier dies in Iraq, I think, ‘Forget the Iraqis.’ I hate the insurgents so much, and I hate the terrorists. They’ve painted us all with their brush.”

A Special Role

The U.S. military now welcomes Arabic speakers who know the culture, offering those with language skills enlistment bonuses, special training and special titles for translators. (There have been relatively few takers.) Before he was shipped overseas, Abdul S. Montaser was asked to coach fellow Marines in rudimentary Arabic. In Iraq, when Marines didn’t trust local translators, they would call on him. “I’d be working the longest shifts, going from mission to mission,” Montaser recalls. When Jamal Baadani started the Association of Patriotic Arab Americans in Military to highlight the contributions and service of Arab-Americans, the Marine Corps gave him an award and even detailed a public affairs officer to help him spread the word.

“I hate the insurgents, and I hate the terrorists. They’ve painted us all with their brush.” –Cpl. Abdul S. Montaser

“I’ve never been treated differently,” says Katherine, 32, an intelligence officer who at 18 came to the U.S. from predominantly Christian Beirut, Lebanon. (She asked that her last name not be used because of her job and to protect her family.) “If you’re professional and complete your mission, you get respect. There’s no way else for it to be.”

There have been only isolated cases of anti-Arab discrimination in the military. Most are handled out of the public eye by each service. What can’t be quantified are snide or disparaging comments, but many Arab-American soldiers agree that there is less discrimination in the military than in the civilian world. But they also contend with two difficult facts: The U.S. government still warns that terrorist infiltration plots remain a serious threat, and the military’s highest-profile deserter, Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun, is an Arab-American. After his military ID, uniform and civilian passport reportedly were found in Fallujah—a hotbed of Iraqi insurgency—Hassoun was charged with desertion and theft and is on the run as a wanted fugitive.

Cultural Ambassadors

Against this backdrop, Arab-Americans in uniform have taken on the challenging role of cultural ambassadors, especially in Iraq. “Before I went to Iraq, my mom said, ‘I want you to represent the best of America to the Iraqis,’” notes Sgt. Omar Masry, son of a Saudi mother and a Lebanese-Armenian father. Masry, 25, grew up in Southern California. He joined the Army Reserve after high school, inspired by some Muslim Bosnian kids he met on the beach. They credited U.S. military intervention in Bosnia with saving their lives. “I don’t think of myself as an Arab-American,” Masry says, “but as an American of Arab ancestry. He adds, “When people question your loyalty as an American, that tugs at you.”

“If you’re professional and complete your mission, you get respect.” –Staff Sgt. Katherine

In Iraq, Masry had to explain to Iraqi elders that U.S. troops were not looking at women through night-vision goggles. As a Muslim, he also was asked if he was treated well in America. “I said I was freer to practice my faith in the U.S.,” recalls Masry. “There, I can be a Muslim because I want to be, not because my neighbors are forcing me. Our values as Americans—dignity, respect and fairness—are more valuable than our military might.”

One Iraqi mother even turned in her son to him. “He was making bombs, and she said, ‘I would rather him go to a prison run by the Americans.’” That, Masry sadly adds, was before Abu Ghraib. Masry likens the prison scandal to an outside cancer that infected the military. “It cost us,” he says. “It was a slap in the face as an Arab-American and also as a soldier.”

Soul-Searching

The war in Iraq has led to soul-searching and reflection among some Arab-Americans. U.S. Army 1st Lt. Eric Rahman, 31, is a Bronze Star recipient. An Iraqi-American (his uncle helped develop MREs for the U.S. Army), Rahman spent his first year of marriage apart from his wife, waiting for her boxes of old magazines with pictures of green grass to reach him in the Kuwaiti desert. He says he finds it hard when Arabs are grouped “into one lump culture,” noting that there are vast differences in ethnicity and religion. And it “pains” him that most Americans’ images of Arabs come from TV.

“We wouldn’t want people overseas to judge all Americans by what they see on TV on The Jerry Springer Show,” says Rahman. “Most Iraqis want to raise their families, have barbecues. The lives they want are so similar to ours, it’s scary.”

“I don’t want my kids to hide their identities or their names.” –Retired Tech. Sgt. Mahmoud El-Yousseph

Omar Masry has been thinking about the place of Arab-Americans in the U.S. “The previous generation that left the Middle East [for the U.S.] often just wanted to hide. Now, we’ve got to become more a part of the fabric of American society.”

Mahmoud El-Yousseph, 54, a Palestinian born in Lebanon, is a case in point. He came to Ohio and spent 20 years as a technical sergeant in the Air Force Reserve. His oldest son, Yousef, 24, is an Army specialist now in Iraq. Like many Arab- Americans, El-Yousseph strongly opposes U.S. policies in the Middle East, especially toward Israel and the Iraq war. “But I admire my son for doing what he promised to do,” he says. “I check the news every day and pray, ‘Oh, God, don’t let it be.’”

He stresses that he’s thankful for his adopted country. “You can make a difference here by speaking out,” he says, adding, “I just want my kids to be accepted in America. I don’t want them to hide their identities or change their names. We love this country. We’re loyal, just like everybody else.”

A Global Snapshot

•The 2000 U.S. Census counted 1.2 million Arab-Americans, twice the number in 1980.

•The Arab American Institute believes there are around 3.5 million Arab-Americans today.

•At least 66% of Arab-Americans are Christian. Only about 24% are Muslim, according to a 2000 survey by pollster John Zogby.

•There are between 2.8 million and 7 million Muslims in the U.S. African-Americans account for 33%-40% of American Muslims.

•Arabs worldwide number about
300 million, just over the U.S. population. The global Muslim population is about 1.2 billion.




Bonus Online Content

Arab-Americans have served in the U.S. Military with distinction since the Revolutionary War. Following are profiles of six noted Arab-American servicemen.

Pvt. Nathan Badeen, Continental Army, Revolutionary War
Badeen was most likely born in what is today Syria, although many of the details of his early life—including his birth date—are lost to history. It is believed that he was kidnapped by French merchants and taken to Canada, from where he made his way to the Boston area. Records show he enlisted in the Continental Army’s 18th Regiment on Jan. 1, 1776, and died in service to his adopted country in the spring of that year. His final resting place is not known.

George Kasem, Army Air Corps, World War II
A Lebanese-American, Kasem served in Europe and North Africa during World War II. Following his war service, he worked as a lawyer in the Los Angeles area. In 1959, Kasem ran for and won a seat in Congress, becoming the first Arab-American to serve in the House of Representatives. He lost his reelection bid and returned to his law practice.

Col. James Jabara, Air Force, Korean War
Born in Oklahoma to Lebanese parents, Jabara was one of the Air Force’s first jet-to-jet combat aces. He shot down 15 enemy planes during the Korean War and won the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star. After the war, he was promoted to colonel, becoming the youngest man to reach that rank in Air Force history. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Capt. Phillip J. Metres, Navy, Vietnam War
Metres’ father, a Lebanese-American, served in World War II, along with several of his uncles. He joined the Navy following college and served as an officer and advisor in Vietnam, earning a bronze star in 1968 for meritorious service. Released from active duty in 1969, Metres was a Naval reservist for 22 years, where he rose to captain.

Gen. George Joulwan, Army, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe
Joulwan was born in a Lebanese-American family in Pottsville, Pa. He attended West Point and served in Vietnam, before rising to prominence in the Pentagon’s command structure. From 1993 to 1997, Joulwan was NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, where he oversaw the alliance’s efforts to bring stability to post-Cold War Europe.

General John Abizaid, Army, Commander U.S. Central Command
The highest-ranking Arab-American in the military, Abizaid is of Lebanese descent and speaks fluent Arabic. He graduated from West Point in 1973 and trained as a paratrooper and an Army Ranger. Rising through the ranks, Abizaid commanded troops in the Balkans in the 1990s, served as a United Nations military operations office and was director of the Joint Staff, a group that serves the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was appointed commander of U.S. Central Command in July 2003.


Arab-American Web Resources

Arab American Institute (AAI)
Celebrating its 20th anniversary, AAI mobilizes the Arab-American community on several fronts. AAI is active in politics, both supporting Arab-American candidates and keeping tabs on legislation important to the Arab-American community. The group also works with national and international media to publicize its efforts on behalf of Arab-Americans, and does outreach to the American public through the Arab American Institute Foundation.

Association of Patriotic Arab Americans in Military (APAAM)
Formed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, APAAM supports Arab-Americans in the military and educates the public about the issues Arab-American soldiers face.

American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)
Founded in 1980 by then U.S. Senator Jim Abourezk, the ADC is a civil-rights group that advocates on behalf of Arab-Americans.

Facts About Arab-Americans

• Arab migration to the United States dates to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The majority of these early immigrants were from Lebanon and Syria, and nearly all were Christian.

• Today, about 34% of the Arab-American population is of Lebanese descent.

• Since World War II, many Arab immigrants have come to the U.S. to flee political turmoil at home.

• A majority of Arab-Americans were born in the U.S., and approximately 82% of the total Arab-American population are U.S. citizens.




 



 

 

 

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