By Kathleen Gray and Donna Leinwand, USA TODAY
DEARBORN, Mich. Army recruiter Sgt. Chris McGarity is on the front
lines of the military's effort to add troops who speak Arabic and
understand Middle Eastern culture a battle that grew more
challenging after the shooting at Fort Hood, Texas.
McGarity says he recently signed up an Arab-American high school
student who lacked only her parents' approval to enlist. Then came
the Nov. 5 rampage at Fort Hood. The Army has charged Maj. Nidal
Hasan, 39, a Muslim and Arab American, with killing 13 people and wounding 32.
The high school student's mother "made her withdraw her application,"
Such experiences illustrate heightened fears of discrimination and
harassment aimed at Arab-American and Muslim troops since the Fort
Hood shooting, says 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.
Muslims in the military experience "horrible" discrimination, he says.
Before the shooting at Fort Hood, the foundation had 80 Muslim
clients who had reported instances of discrimination and harassment,
Weinstein says. Complaints jumped 20% to 103 in the weeks after the
shooting. "We had people almost immediately … being told 'you people'
should not be in the military," he says.
Weinstein says he regularly gets complaints from troops 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
Language as a powerful weapon
As the U.S. fights wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the mission to
recruit troops who have language and cultural skills useful there has
become so critical that the Army created two programs to achieve that goal.
Last year, the Army sought 270 recruits who speak Arabic, Pashto,
Dari and Farsi the languages of Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan to
serve as military interpreters, says Douglas Smith, spokesman for the
U.S. Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky.
The Army exceeded its goal, recruiting 321, he says. In 2010, the
Army is seeking 165 recruits.
A second recruiting program began in February in New York and has
expanded to Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago and Dallas. That program
targets non-citizens who have been in the U.S. at least two years and
have special language and cultural skills from the Middle East, China
and Korea, he said. The Army has recruited 455 people under that
program, which expires Dec. 31.
"Non-citizens have stepped forward to serve this country in previous
wars since the American Revolution," the military says in its
briefing papers on the program.
Making the cut in Dearborn, Mich.
Dearborn, where Arab Americans account for nearly a third of the
population, is fertile ground, yet just one Arab-American recruit in
20 makes it through the vetting process, 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," says
McGarity, 31, who served in Iraq early in the war and has recruited
in Dearborn for four years. "Then there are the guys who are willing,
but their families aren't."
The recruiters recognize that Arab-American enlistees may worry about
fitting in with fellow troops 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
Sgt. Ian Parker, 27, 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 says.
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. The military does not keep full data on the number of Muslim troops.
Jamal Baadani, 45, a Marine reservist living in Virginia, is one of
them. He founded the Association of Patriotic Arab Americans in
Military and often walked around Arab-American communities in
uniform. People would ask why he wanted to serve a government "that's
going to kill your own kind," he says.
"The U.S. military did not go over there to 'kill your kind.' They
went over there to attack a threat that came to this country to
attack us," Baadani would respond. "The U.S. Army really respects our
community and goes above and beyond to understand our community."