In Iraq, the Ft. Hood attack hit home

By Naveed Ali Shah
Sunday, November 8, 2009

I've been deployed to Iraq for the past four months, and I've figured out ways to cope with the stress that comes from being thousands of miles away from my family.

But I wasn't prepared for what happens when violence intrudes on my loved ones, who are supposed to be safe at home while I am in a combat zone. It flipped all of my attitudes toward deployment upside down. And the aftermath of the attack at Fort Hood, Tex., allegedly committed by a fellow Muslim, also raised a different set of concerns -- not just about my family's safety, but about the perceptions of my faith.

I was working late on Thursday and decided to call my wife, who was at home on post at Fort Hood, to check in. She didn't answer. I tried again. A busy signal. That was unusual, so I went to e-mail her. She was already online. The instant-message conversation we had was so surreal that I ended up posting it on the blog that I've been keeping during this deployment and that was picked up by some media outlets. Here's what we wrote:

Angela: We are on lock down, baby.

me: What?

Angela: We have shooters.

Me: Lock Down?

. . .

Angela: Soldiers? Who is doing it?

me: They're not saying.

Angela: ugh

me: This is ridiculous. I'm in the war zone not you!

Angela: I know!

As my wife watched the events play out live on television, we got increasingly worried. We both frantically searched the Internet for news about the violence unfolding a short distance from the home where our 18-month-old son slept in his crib.

More information started to come in: 13 dead after a shooting at the soldier readiness center.

I felt worse: A gunman could be on the loose near my family. The first reports that afternoon were hazy. Some said there were possibly four shooters, one dead on the scene and three at large at Fort Hood. Suddenly, the sprawling, 300-plus-square-mile post seemed much smaller, as if an armed and dangerous masked man were standing in my backyard, staring through my home's glass door.

More than anything, I felt completely helpless listening to my wife on the other end of the phone, on the other side of the world, alone.

I could picture exactly where the shooting took place. I had been through the readiness center in June, preparing to deploy. For soldiers headed to Iraq or Afghanistan, the center is a one-stop shop to take care of financial issues, identification cards, Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance, vaccinations and myriad other issues related to deployment. The medical wing was always crowded, making what should have been a 30-minute process stretch on much longer.

The doors to the center open to an expansive waiting area from which soldiers are called one by one to the finance specialists. I spent most of my time in those comfortable blue chairs dozing and daydreaming of putting this deployment behind me. Rows and rows of soldiers, laughing, sleeping and watching mind-numbing loops of CNN, fill the center at any given time.

I signed up for the military knowing I would deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. After seeing friends come and go for two years, I thought I was as ready as I would ever be. Sitting there gave me a lot of time to reflect, and the reality of deployment began to sink in. Leaving my family for a year was no easy prospect, but signing the life insurance forms was a definitive moment. Why does a healthy 21-year-old need $400,000 worth of life insurance?

I answered my own question: because I might not come back.

On Thursday, a soldier just like me was probably sitting in the chair I sat in, looking up as the doors were thrown open and the gunman walked in. What would you do if a regular day was interrupted by angry, burning steel? Run? Hide? I'm not sure what I would have done.

The alleged gunman was eventually shot and taken in custody to the hospital. He was identified as Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan. Suddenly this terrible story had a new twist. Right away, the news networks picked up on his name and his Islamic background. I could not believe his faith had anything to do with it. I didn't want to believe it.

I was raised in a good Islamic household and, until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, I never really believed that Muslims could be evil in the name of their faith. Though my early life was sheltered, I've learned a lot in the years since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

I was born in Saudi Arabia to Pakistani parents and immigrated to the United States before I reached age 3. I grew up on the East Coast, moving as far north as Washington and as far south as Savannah, Ga. I call Springfield, Va., my home town, because I spent the best years of my childhood there.

My brothers and sister and I went to Sunday school when we were growing up, though we learned about Muhammad and Ibrahim, rather than Jesus and Abraham. My mother ensured that we said our prayers every day and read the Koran and learned from it.

That's how I am planning to raise my own son, Yusuf. Yet, as I think about the swift reaction last week to the alleged shooter's background, I don't see how he can grow up without being exposed to the negative ideas associated with Islam. The majority of these stereotypes come from false depictions of Islam as a fundamentalist, extremist organization bent on world domination through sharia law.

My son is so young still -- his favorite things are his stuffed animals and our dog, Rocky. He is unaware that part of his life will be shaped less by the impact of men such as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., and more by men such as Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Omar.

What Hasan is alleged to have done last week at Fort Hood resulted in loss of life and serious injury for my fellow soldiers. I send my deepest condolences to the families of the fallen. The attack also led to a fresh round of hateful words targeted at Muslim Americans, though I have never felt discriminated against by my comrades.

Nonetheless, in the aftermath of the massacre, I am reminded to be a stronger and more persistent presence in raising my son. I will teach him not only to be a good Muslim but a good citizen.

For now, though, I am focusing on teaching him the alphabet via Webcam while I finish this deployment.

The distance between here and there, between a combat zone and what was, temporarily, another zone of violence, has never felt greater.

Naveed Ali Shah is a public affairs specialist in the U.S. Army. The views presented here do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense.

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