What Does Veterans’ Day Mean to Arab Americans?
By: Noor Almohsin/Arab America Contributing Writer
In any society, there are those who sacrifice their lives to defend their countries and protect their people. Over the years, with all military missions the US has been involved in, there has been an increased number of American veterans. Among them, are Arab Americans who serve in the armed forces, including the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.
According to a study conducted in 1924 by Philip Hitti, a Princeton Professor, there were 13,965 Arab Americans who served in World War I. The study also estimated 15,000 of them who served in World War II. Even further, some Arab Americans served in the War of 1812.
The number continued growing as more missions were conducted by U.S. forces around the world in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan; in addition to conflicts in the Middle East such as Iraq, Yemen, and Libya.
American wars in the Middle East might have posed some problems for Arab Americans serving in the Armed forces because of their opposition to some of the policies in that region. Rajai Hakki, a Syrian American, born in Pennsylvania and raised in Washington DC, served as a US Marine and translator; he wrote about difficulties he faced when serving in Iraq and Guantanamo. He stated, “I suddenly realized the misguided nature of our operations in the Middle East since September11th. I felt horrible…It hit me like a bullet to the brain: our wars in the Middle East are horrific blunders and we must extract our forces from Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Yet, prior to Middle Eastern conflicts, Arab American veterans served with dedication. Zyad Hasan, a Palestinian American, who served as a reconnaissance scout for a Bradley Tank battalion stated, “At the time I enlisted, I felt that military service was something everyone had to do,” “I didn’t see conflict but I proudly wore our uniform. Where I was stationed, I did not run into any other Arabs and being an Arab was never an issue when I served in the US military.” Hasan mentioned he never felt discriminated against, and nobody questioned his patriotism or loyalty as an American. He mentioned the military always accommodated the Muslim diet by substituting pork with other Halal meat.
According to official reports, among the 1.4 million people in active-duty, there are around four thousand Muslims, and two thousand serving in the National Guard.
However, some estimate the number may be higher because religious identification is voluntary, and some prevent affiliation to avoid questioning their loyalty to America.
In fact, ethnic and racial minorities have dramatically grown in the US armed forces. In 1990, it comprised 25%, and reached 40% in 2015, which also reflects the demographic shift in the American society. One might find it frustrating that the Army Demographic FY16 Army Profile Report does not acknowledge Arab Americans in its demographic categorization.
In fact, Alex Shams stated, “I think I’ve really come to realize that in the wake of the war in Iraq…I began to see myself as Middle Eastern, and I began to identify with that because that’s how I was being seen and perceived by people around me.” But Middle Eastern and Arab geographic and ethnic categories do not currently exist in the U.S. Census Bureau for self-identification.
September 11th and the rise in Islamophobia have been affecting aspects of life for Americans and Arab Americans in particular. Discrimination against Arab and Muslim American veterans increased after 9/11 when the war zone moved to Arab and Muslim countries.
One of the issues is confronting Muslims in battle and the chance of killing innocent civilians. Abdi Akgun from Lindenhurst, N.Y., who returned from Iraq without ever pulling the trigger declares, “It’s kind of like the Civil War, where brothers fought each other across the Mason-Dixon line,” “I don’t want to stain my faith, I don’t want to stain my fellow Muslims, and I also don’t want to stain my country’s flag.”
Sergeant Mahmoud El-Yousef wrote to American news outlets: “Dear America, I am an Arab American, but a proud American just like you…On that dreadful day, September 11th, my duffel bag was already packed and I was waiting to answer the call of duty. …..I also want a better and safer America just like you. When it comes to patriotism and loyalty, I am red, white and blue, just like you.”
Despite the confusion, Americans of Arab and Muslim origins are loyal to America. U.S. Marine Corps Retired First Sergeant Jamal S. Baadani, USMC (Retired) a native of Egypt and Yemen and former founder of the Association of Patriotic Arab Americans stated previously, “I felt I had an obligation to serve the country that helped give my family a new life. It was my way of thanking America.” He led APAAM from 2002 to 2010, when he retired from the United States Marine Corps.
Issues Arab American Veterans Face
Civilians stigmatize Arab American veterans like all other veterans. There is a public misperception that all veterans do is kill people and destroy property. Besides, many veterans come back from a war zone traumatized and need help to overcome what they have been through.
Many veterans become frustrated because many don’t have jobs to return to and many rely on public support for their living. They need to be appreciated, respected, and valued in their own communities.
Moreover, Arab Americans feel marginalized and discriminated against by the Veteran’s organizations that have recently became politicized. Therefore, there have been efforts to start Arab American veterans groups such as the Palestinian American Veterans Association, the Association of Patriotic Arab Americans in the Military (APAAM), and Arab Federation of War Veterans and Victims. Moreover, a social service organization in New York , the Arab American Family Services (AAFS) has created a tutoring program that reintegrates veterans with other members of the Arab American community.
This program also helps Arab American veterans to teach children who have lingual or cultural barriers at their schools. In addition, the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan has proudly displayed an exhibition, “Patriots & Peacemakers: Arab Americans in Service to Our Country”. It highlights the personal narrative of Arab American men and women of different national and religious backgrounds who served in the U.S. Armed Forces, the diplomatic service, and the Peace Corps. This exhibition has been featured on Capitol Hill documenting the sacrifices and heroism of Arab Americans in the military.
Remembering Arab American Veterans
Many Arab American veterans express their frustration; they feel ignored after they honorably serve during time of war. Therefore, in remembering the American veterans on November 11th, we need to remember the service of thousands of patriotic Arab Americans including, Muslims and Christians who served and sacrificed their lives to defend our nation–many who lost their lives with such heroic honor.