I remember being in my Aqua Blue 1994 Single Cab 4 Banger Toyota Tacoma and driving to my high school in Temecula. It was my senior year and I already knew that I was going to serve. Coming from a family of immigrants it was ingrained in me to give back to the country that had given me so much. I thought I would do ROTC; serve for a couple of years; be a Rifle platoon leader, maybe a company commander; and then leave with that block checked.
But what I was hearing on the radio at 6:30 in the morning, while stuck in traffic at Nicolas Road waiting to make that left turn into my school, shocked me. It was early enough in the reporting that everyone thought that it was still an accident. But then I remember making that left turn and hearing the newscaster starting to yell that another one just hit and they now think that it was intentional.
Walking into school you could still see that some people knew what was going on while others didn’t. Seeing mixed in the crowd the usual set of emotions, which a new school day brings, on the faces of those who hadn’t heard the news yet, with the stupefaction of those who had heard, was surreal. It wouldn’t be the first time that I would encounter such a surreal moment. Sorta like every time you rotated off a COP to a super FOB for a refit and saw nothing, but a sea of fobbits as far as the eye could see.
Getting into the homeroom was even more somber as the planes hitting the towers were on in every classroom and all eyes were glued to them. People knew we were going to go to war; we just didn’t know where. I guess that’s what it was like after Pearl Harbor too: crowds of young men angry and anxious about what was going to happen next.
I learned later on that day that all the Middle Eastern kids that went to our school hadn’t showed up that day. This to me was weird because I was one of those kids. I guess you can say that on that day I started to see the divide (no this piece isn’t going to go on one of those tangents now). I still to this day wonder why their parents made that decision. To me it didn’t make sense. Why would you hide? Why wouldn’t you want to engage and grieve with your fellow students?
My decision was made up: I was going to join immediately, I didn’t care. I was going to fight for the country that gave so much to my family and myself.
I grew up reading nothing but military history and even at a young age I saw the parallels between the Nisei and what was happening with the Middle Eastern communities in the U.S.. I saw it first during the first Gulf War with the name-calling and the obligatory taunts of Camel Jockey and Dune Coon. I was a kid so I just handled it with fists more than words, but after the bruises I at least had my books to fall back on, and those books where filled with stories of bravery from another era and with men who fought in past wars.
Seeing the events that unfolded afterward, brought me back to those books about the Nisei and Tuskegee Airmen. And let me say this before I go on: There is no way that Middle Eastern People have it as bad as the Nisei or African American Veterans of that era — not even close. One of my favorite quotes from the HBO Movie Tuskegee Airman was: “Why would you want to fight for a country that thanks you by lynching you.” Powerful then, powerful today.
The central theme that brought me back to these stories and accounts of combat heroism was these downtrodden men that were fighting for that future — for that one day when they would be all equals. In some ways the situation has improved for both ethnic groups. Five years after WWII, both African American and Asian American troops were no longer segregated and were fighting side by side in Korea and then in Vietnam. Think of a Rifle Platoon now: it’s really a great mix of people who 75 years ago were not even allowed to fight alongside white soldiers.
Naively I thought that this would be that one moment that would bring more Middle Eastern people into the mainstream as we united together against a common enemy. Boy was I wrong.
Imagine if we had more people serving who looked like the people we were fighting. Would it have gone the same way? Maybe. Would we have better understood the people we where engaging? Definitely. As the four years turned into six, then 10 and now 18, I always wondered if it would have been different had more Americans of Middle Eastern origin joined and whether we would be where we are now in the grander scheme of things.
I remember being on a clearance operation talking in Farsi to a IA PSG, who spent 10 years in Iran after the Iran-Iraq War. We were talking about blocking positions and where his guys were at. The conversation was going from English to Farsi to Arabic and back as I sent up SITREPs to my Company Commander. It was surreal; but it provided another of these moments when I wished that more of my people would have joined after 9/11.
In 2011 I was leaving Iraq for what I thought was the last time. I sit now in transient housing in Arifjan, Kuwait getting ready to leave for, what I think will be again, my “last time.” And still all I can think about is that day in September and wishing that more of my people would have joined.
All these years have passed and I am still in and I have grown to love the Army. The people that I have met and become close friends with have changed my perspectives on a lot of things. We let each other into our respective worlds and we saw that we are really more alike than what people out there think.
Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Major Alex Kaivan, HHBN XVIII Airborne Corps.