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Recruiting Arab Troops Proves Tough

posted on: Dec 10, 2009

Sgt. Chris McGarity, an Army recruiter in Dearborn, is on the front lines of finding soldiers who speak Arabic and understand Middle Eastern culture. But that battle has gotten tougher since an Army psychiatrist, who is Muslim and Arab American, was charged in a shooting rampage last month at Ft. Hood, Texas.

McGarity said he had signed up a Dearborn high school student who lacked only her parents’ approval to enlist.

Then came the Nov. 5 rampage at Ft. Hood. The Arab-American student’s mother “made her withdraw her application,” McGarity said.

The mother’s decision came after the Army charged Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, 39, with killing 13 people and wounding 32.

Since the shootings, Arab-American and Muslim soldiers are more worried about discrimination and harassment, said Mikey Weinstein, a former Air Force lawyer who founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which advocates for separation between church and state in the military.

The foundation’s list of Muslim clients grew 20% to 103 in the weeks after the shooting, he said.

“We had people almost immediately being told ‘you people’ should not be in the military,” Weinstein said.

Weinstein said he gets lots of complaints from soldiers who report name-calling, extra duty on holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving, anti-Muslim graffiti scrawled on prayer centers, and officers who encourage their troops to kill Muslims or demand Christian prayer.

As the United States fights wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the mission to recruit soldiers who have useful language and cultural skills is essential.

Last year, the U.S. Army sought 270 new recruits who speak Arabic, Pashto, Dari and Farsi — the languages of Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan — to serve as interpreters, said Douglas Smith, spokesman for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command at Ft. Knox, Ky.

The Army exceeded its goal, recruiting 321. Next year, the Army is seeking 165.

Dearborn, where Arab Americans account for nearly a third of the city’s 86,477 people, is fertile ground for recruiters. Still, only one Arab-American recruit in 20 makes it through the vetting process for potential soldiers — about half the success rate of other recruits.

“If you don’t have a valid green card, you’re out. If you can’t pass the aptitude test or can’t physically qualify, you’re out,” said McGarity, 31, who served in Iraq early in the war and has recruited in Dearborn for four years. “And then there are the guys who are willing, but their families aren’t.”

Several potential recruits who came into the Army’s Dearborn office last month declined interviews with the Free Press.

The recruiters recognize Arab-American enlistees may worry about fitting in with fellow soldiers or having to fight in Arab or Muslim countries. They work with Arab organizations in the community and attend job fairs to meet potential recruits. They hire Arabic linguists to work in their office, learning about the Middle Eastern cultures themselves.

Sgt. Ian Parker, 27, who also recruits for the Army in Dearborn, said he starts conversations with potential soldiers by asking how they feel about going to Iraq or Afghanistan.

“Once you hit an objection to that, you’re just wasting your time,” Parker said.

Arab Americans and Muslims in the military remain a tiny minority. Of nearly 1.5 million active duty military, about 3,500 are Arab Americans.

Kathleen Gray
Detroit Free Press