Arab Americans in the United States Military
By Grace Friar/Arab America Contributing Writer
The United States has a long and proud military heritage with countless individuals who have sacrificed their lives to protect this country and our way of life. Arab Americans have proudly served since the Revolutionary War; however, many records do not accurately report their numbers and representation has been scarce. As Americans, we seek to understand those who came before us, so we must understand the people who laid the foundation regardless of ethnicity or gender.
Research to uncover Arab Americans in the U.S. military has been conducted mainly by looking at names that could be associated with Arab heritage, which makes accurate numbers quite difficult to establish. Historians have uncovered some information about Arab Americans during the Revolutionary War, which estimates around four Arab Americans served in the Revolutionary Army. The first Arab American to die for America was Private Nathan Badeen, a Syrian immigrant who died on May 23, 1776, just a month and a half before American independence.
Pre-Civil war, the Camel Military Corps was established to patrol the U.S.’s newly acquired lands in the southwest. Camels arrived from the Ottoman Empire, but the men quickly realized they were unable to efficiently handle these animals. Enter Hajji Ali, an Ottoman camel driver, who landed in Indianola, Texas, aboard the USS Supply in 1856. He was quickly recruited by the U.S. government and led the first mission to bring Lt. Edward Beale on an expedition searching for a possible southern route for the transcontinental railroad. Unfortunately, the Civil War scratched any future for the Camel Military Corps, but “Hi Jolly,” a nickname given to Hajji by his comrades, lived on as a local legend.
The numbers for the Civil War include a list of as many as 292 names associated with Islam. One such person was Mohammed Ali ben Said, also known as Nicholas Said. Said was born in the Kingdom of Bornou, located in present day Libya, Chad and Sudan and enslaved after being kidnapped as a teenager. Serving Arab, Turkish and Russian masters, he traveled the world before being released from slavery in England in 1859. Said traveled to Canada and worked as a servant before immigrating to the United States in 1862. He became a schoolteacher in Detroit, Michigan. The following year, Said enlisted as a private in Company I, 55th Massachusetts Infantry. Said and the 55th Massachusetts fought in the battles of James Island and Honey Hill. After the war, he settled in the south and started schools for Black children during Reconstruction.
World War I and Forward
During World War I it is estimated that as many as 13,965 Arab Americans served, according to a 1924 study by Princeton professor Philip Hitti. In World War II, it is estimated that 15,000 Arab Americans fought in the U.S. military to end the Nazi regime and Japanese imperialism. Colonel James “Jabby” Jabara, an Arab American of Lebanese descent, flew 108 combat missions in two tours of duty as a P-51 pilot in the European theater. After the war, Jabara continued his service with overseas tours in Japan where he is accredited for six MiG-related confirmed kills, which made him the first American jet-vs-jet ace in history. Jabara served one more tour in Korea where he shot down nine more MiGs, which brought his total confirmed kills to 15. During World War II, Colonel Jabara was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with one Oak Leaf Cluster and the Air Medal with 18 Oak Leaf Clusters. While in Korea, he received the Distinguished Service Cross with one oak-leaf cluster and an oak-leaf cluster to the Distinguished Flying Cross. At the time of his car crash related death, Jabara was the youngest colonel in the U.S. Air Force. Air Force Colonel James Jabara and his 16-year-old daughter are buried near President Kennedy’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery.
General George Joulwan, a proud United States Military Academy graduate of Syrian heritage, served for 36 years with tours in Vietnam as well as various positions within the Pentagon from 1982 until June 1986 when he became the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations in the United States Army Europe and U.S. Seventh Army, Germany. In March 1988 he was given command of the third Armored Division and in 1989 he became Commanding General, U.S. V Corps. Joulwan finished his military career serving as commander in chief, United States European Command and Supreme Allied Commander (SACEUR) form 1993-1997. During his four years as NATO Supreme Allied Commander, he conducted over 20 operations in the Balkans, Africa and the Middle East. He is also credited with creating the first strategic policy for U.S. military engagement in Africa. His post-military career includes positions as a professor at the U.S. Military Academy, Director of General Dynamics Corporation and Independent Director of Emergent BioSolutions, where he still works today.
General John Abizad is another well-respected Arab American service member of Lebanese descent. He is also a United States Military Academy graduate and earned a Master of Arts in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. He started his career with the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, and 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He commanded companies in the 2nd and 1st Ranger Battalions, leading a ranger rifle company during the invasion of Grenada. In 1983, he jumped from an MC-130 onto a landing strip in Grenada and ordered one of his Rangers to drive a bulldozer like a tank toward Cuban troops as he advanced behind it—a move highlighted in the 1986 Clint Eastwood film, Heartbreak Ridge. Following the Iraq War and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, he assumed command of the United States Central Command. As of April 30, 2019, he serves as a U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps the most lasting impression of heroism by an Arab American lies with the story of Petty Officer Michael Monsoor, a Navy SEAL of Lebanese heritage. Monsoor enlisted in the United States Navy in 2001 and graduated from Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training BUD/S class 250 in 2004. After further training he was assigned to Delta Platoon, SEAL Team 3. Delta Platoon was sent to Iraq in April 2006 and assigned to train Iraqi army soldiers in Ramadi. On September 29, 2006, an insurgent threw a grenade onto a rooftop where Monsoor and several other SEALs and Iraqi soldiers were positioned. Monsoor quickly smothered the grenade with his body, absorbing the resulting explosion and saving his comrades from serious injury or death. Monsoor died about 30 minutes later from wounds caused by the grenade explosion. On April 8, 2008, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”
Today, Arab Americans proudly serve our country in all branches of service, though the exact number is inestimable. The Pentagon regards Arab Americans as especially valued members of the U.S. military because of their important language skills and their understanding of the cultures of the Middle East. It has been acknowledged that many Arab Americans were treated with prejudice following the events of 9/11. Despite this, the spirit of patriotism has been gallantly displayed through the acts of these service members as well as the countless other Arab Americans choosing to fight for our country.
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