Military Veterans Sorting Out Life as Muslims and Marines


Sorting Out Life as Muslims and Marines

Few people ever see Ismile Althaibani’s Purple Heart. He keeps the medal tucked away in a dresser. His Marine uniform is stored in a closet. His hair is no longer shaved to the scalp.

It has been 20 months since he returned from Iraq after a roadside explosion shattered his left foot. He never expected a hero’s welcome, and it never came.

Mr. Althaibani, 23, was the last of five young marines to come home to an extended family of Yemeni immigrants in Brooklyn. Like the others, he grew accustomed to the uneasy stares and prying questions. He learned not to talk about his service in the company of Muslim neighbors and relatives.

I try not to let people know I’m in the military, said Mr. Althaibani, a lance corporal in the Marine Corps Reserve.

The passage home from Iraq has been difficult for many American troops. They have struggled to recover from the shocking intensity of the war. They have faced the country’s ambivalence about a conflict in which thousands of their fellow soldiers have been killed or maimed…


But for Muslim Americans like Mr. Althaibani, the experience has been especially fraught.

They were called upon to fight a Muslim enemy, alongside comrades who sometimes questioned their loyalty. They returned home to neighborhoods where the occupation is commonly dismissed as an imperialist crusade, and where Muslims who serve in Iraq are often disparaged as traitors.

Some 3,500 Muslims have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan with the United States armed forces, military figures show. Seven of them have been killed, and 212 have been awarded Combat Action Ribbons.

More than half these troops are African-American. But little else is known about Muslims in the military. There is no count of those who are immigrants or of Middle Eastern descent. There is no full measure of their honors or injuries, their struggle overseas and at home.

A piece of the story is found near Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, where two sets of brothers and a young cousin share a singular kinship. They grew up blocks apart, in the cradle of a large Muslim family. They joined the Marines, passing from one fraternity to another. Within the span of a year and a half, they had all gone to Iraq and come home.

Ismile’s cousin Ace Montaser sensed a new distance among the men at his mosque on State Street. He described it as the awkward eye.

Ismile’s older brother Abe, a burly New York City police officer, learned to avoid political debates.

Their cousin Abdulbasset Montaser took a different approach. He answered questions about whether he served in Iraq with a feisty, Yeah, we’re going to Yemen next! He has helped recruit for the Marines and boasts about his cousin’s medal to the neighbors.

I want every Muslim in the military to be recognized, said Mr. Montaser, a corporal. If not, people will feel they’re not doing their part.

Their service bears some resemblance to that of Japanese and German immigrants who fought for the United States in World War II. But for Muslims of Arab descent, the call to serve in Iraq is complicated not only by ethnic ties, but by religion.

Islamic scholars have long debated the circumstances under which it is permissible for Muslims to fight one another. The arguments are intricate, centering on the question of what constitutes a just war.

In Brooklyn, those fine points are easily lost. Here, many immigrants say that killing Muslims is simply wrong, and they cite the Koran as proof. Their opposition to the war is rooted as much in religion, they say, as in Arab solidarity.

The same week that Abe Althaibani headed to Iraq with the 25th Marine Regiment, his wife joined thousands of antiwar protesters in Manhattan, shouting, No blood for oil!

It was my people, said his wife, Esmihan Althaibani, a regal woman with luminous green eyes. I went because it was Arabs.

Yet the American military desperately needs people like her husband: Arabic speakers with a religious and cultural understanding of the Middle East. They have become crucial figures in Iraq, serving as interpreters, conduits and even buffers between soldiers and civilians.

The Althaibanis and Montasers knew they would be useful. They wanted to help bring change to Iraq. They did not know how much the war would change them.

Brooklyn to Yemen and Back

As boys, the Althaibanis and Montasers lived in two worlds. They took summer trips to the pastoral villages of their Yemeni ancestors, and spent winters shoveling snow off Brooklyn stoops. They attended Koran classes, and rooted passionately for the Knicks.

They saw themselves as both American and Arab, as brash Brooklyn kids in the halls of John Dewey High School, and respectful Yemeni sons at the dinner table.

One by one, they graduated from high school and joined the Marine Corps Reserve. Some of their parents found it odd, even disappointing. The sons of other Yemeni immigrants tended to follow their fathers into commerce, or better yet, studied law and medicine.

But for the young men of this family, the first to be born in America, military service became an honorable rite. It offered discipline and adventure. It also promised a new kind of respect from other Americans. Starting in 1992, eight of the family’s young men enlisted, almost all of them before Sept. 11.

The prospect of fighting in a Muslim country unsettled the five cousins who were deployed to Iraq, recalled an uncle, Naji Almontaser.

It was very heavy on their conscience, said Mr. Almontaser, 47, a banquet captain at the New York Hilton. I kept pounding on them that when you go there you have to do good.

It helped that four of them went to Iraq together, with the same two units. Still, they found themselves thrust into a daunting role. Their fluency in Arabic made them invaluable. But it also laid bare the horrors of war. They heard what their comrades could not. A frantic sequence of foreign words was, they knew, a girl crying out that her father was dead.

It’s like you’re part of two different worlds, Abe Althaibani said. You’re part of the military thing, yet you totally relate to this country you just invaded. You’re not as foreign as everyone else.

He recalled the evening he tried to calm a bleeding woman as her children lay dying several feet away. He crouched next to her, near a bridge in Nasiriya, talking softly in Arabic.

Ismile Althaibani, Abe’s younger brother, remembers insisting that a mentally disabled prisoner be allowed to ride in the passenger seat of a truck, without a sandbag over his head, when a group of men were transported from Abu Ghraib to another prison.

Their cousins Abdulbasset Montaser and Khalil Almontaser were stationed in Babylon. There, Mr. Montaser befriended Iraqi workers. I tried to look out for them a little more, help them a little more than the average soldier, he said.

But at times, such gestures brought unease. One day, as Mr. Montaser walked the young workers to lunch, a gunnery sergeant yelled, Get away from them, he recalled.

He and his cousins learned to ignore the pejoratives of war, words like hajji, camel jockey and Johnny Jihad. They understood that their fellow marines had to dehumanize the enemy in order to carry on, Abe Althaibani said.

But for them, the task was far more trying.

I couldn’t distance myself, Mr. Althaibani said. Sometimes I wanted to.

Thousands of miles away, on Court Street in Brooklyn, his mother met a similar challenge.

She and her husband live in a rambling apartment adorned with Persian rugs and gold-lettered passages from the Koran. In the living room, a giant Sony television holds court.

The television was Sadah Althaibani’s tether to her sons. But unlike other military mothers, who might watch CNN or Fox, Mrs. Althaibani followed the war on Arab news channels that showed far more graphic images, and were decidedly more critical of the United States.

Day after day, she and Abe Althaibani’s wife, Esmihan, would sit anchored to the plastic-covered couches, watching.

You see what’s going on over there, said Esmihan Althaibani, 26. The casualties on both sides. Iraqis speaking for themselves, saying, We didn’t want to get invaded.’ They would hold dead babies with their heads blown off.

One afternoon in May, the television filled with the image of a blood-soaked sidewalk in Baghdad.

Look, look, said Sadah Althaibani, 65, a petite woman with a stubborn frown. They’re cleaning the blood off the ground.

When Mrs. Althaibani talks about the war, she sounds like other American parents upset by their children’s service. She laments that her sons had to fight while President Bush was playing with his dog. She has no doubt that the occupation was driven by a quest for oil.

But among Yemeni immigrants, Mrs. Althaibani found that she could not speak openly about her sons’ deployment. Muslim Americans have been vehemently opposed to the war: Of roughly 1,800 surveyed by the pollster John Zogby in 2004, more than 80 percent were against it.

Mrs. Althaibani told people that her sons were working as translators, not as marines in combat. On her television, she had seen reports of Shiites fighting Sunnis, but she clung to the idea that Muslims should not kill each other.

It’s a sin, she said. Nobody kills other Muslims. They’re like brothers.

After Combat, Questions

The question that shadows the Montasers and Althaibanis is whether they killed anyone. The same question haunts any soldier returning from combat. But for Muslims, the reckoning is different.

Abdulbasset Montaser, 23, a slim, soft-spoken man, said he fired his weapon only in self-defense, and never at targets he could distinctly see.

I never had to kill anyone face to face, he said.

He believed that battling with the insurgents was justified because they were not following the rules of Islam. What disturbed him were the civilians caught in the cross-fire.

It’s not that I feel guilty going out there, but you’re fighting your own people in a way, he said.

Of the five cousins, no one saw heavier combat than Ismile (pronounced ish-MY-el) Althaibani, who was stationed in Falluja in the fall of 2004, during the American offensive against the insurgents there. He worked in convoy security with the First Marine Division.

If you’re out there no matter your culture, your religion and somebody shoots at you, what do you do? Mr. Althaibani said. It’s either him or me. That’s how I come to terms with it.

Still, he was troubled by his belief that Islam prohibits killing.

Over dinner at an Italian restaurant one evening last month, Mr. Althaibani sat hunched at the table, spinning his cellphone like a top.

Abdulbasset Montaser sat across from him. They were the only ones in their family to enlist after Sept. 11, when deployment to the Middle East was a clear possibility. They never expected the war that followed.

When asked if he was proud of his service in Iraq, Mr. Althaibani thought for a moment.

It’s mixed feelings, right? he said, looking at his cousin. Mr. Montaser nodded silently.

Mr. Althaibani was awarded a Combat Action Ribbon, in addition to the Purple Heart. He did not want to talk about whether he killed anyone, or about the violence he witnessed.

You just try to forget, he said.

A Marine Transformed

The oldest of the group, Abe Althaibani, came home with much of his former character intact. He had the same easy laugh. He still cleaned his plate at dinner.

But there were hints of change. He was more on edge, his mother noticed. He had acquired the habits of his comrades: he smoked Marlboro Reds and took to dipping tobacco.

What struck his wife was something less common among marines: Mr. Althaibani spoke Arabic with a new Iraqi accent.

He told his relatives little about his role in the war. When prodded, he would sometimes say that he served in civilian affairs.

In fact, Mr. Althaibani had worked on secret missions around Iraq with two counterintelligence teams.

He had been trained as a rifleman. But soon after he arrived at his base in Nasiriya in April 2003, he became a full-time interpreter, going on raids, assisting with interrogations and working undercover to cultivate sources. To fit in, he grew a beard and wore a long, checked scarf popular among Iraqi men.

The irony of Mr. Althaibani’s evolution did not escape him: He assumed, by outward appearances, a more traditionally Arab identity with the Marines than he ever had growing up among Yemenis.

The greatest challenge of his service, he said, was the acting.

It’s like you gotta be somebody you’re not sometimes in order to get information, he said. It’s basically like you’re a fake, you’re a fraud. But you have to think you’re doing this in order for good things to happen.

Mr. Althaibani, 28, wanted only to unwind when he came home five months later. Other marines he knew had struggled to readjust to civilian life.

It’s hard, he said. You’re out there giving people orders, and you come here and the lady at the checkout is giving you attitude.

He eventually became a police officer, taking a path that three other marines in his family plan to follow.

One sunny afternoon in June, Mr. Althaibani guided his black Nissan Maxima through the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn. Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon floated from the speakers. The playgrounds, schools and cafes of Mr. Althaibani’s youth passed in slow sequence.

As he drove, Mr. Althaibani began recounting the crowning achievement of his team in Iraq: the capture of a suspected Baath party official who was believed to have taken part in the deadly ambush of Pfc. Jessica Lynch’s convoy.

I felt like I was doing something, he said.

The Iraqi captive, Nagem Sadoon Hatab, was detained at Camp Whitehorse near Nasiriya in June 2003. During an interrogation, he would accept water only from Mr. Althaibani, the marine recalled.

Two days later, another marine dragged Mr. Hatab, who was covered in his own feces, by the neck outside his cell and left him lying naked in the heat, according to court testimony. He was found dead hours later. An autopsy showed that he had suffered a broken neck bone, broken ribs and blunt trauma to the legs.

A Marine Corps major and a sergeant were charged with assaulting Mr. Hatab. Both were acquitted of the charge, though the major was found guilty of dereliction of duty and maltreatment in the case and the sergeant was convicted of abusing unidentified Iraqi prisoners.

Mr. Althaibani testified at the sergeant’s trial. He spoke about the case later with a shrugging detachment, saying he had witnessed no abuse and believes that the prosecutors were intent on crucifying the Marines.

Looking back on the war, he feels the greatest loyalty toward his fellow marines.

I wanted to get out there, do what I had to do and get home, he said. I had no choice. Even if there was a choice you’re going to train with these guys and leave them?

The Marine Corps is like a cult, he said. You went together and you come home together.

No Looking Back

It is difficult to picture Ace Montaser at war. He has a boy’s face, with flushed cheeks and aqua eyes that dance about.

When he rolls up his sleeve, the image hardens. Sprawled across his arm is a tattoo of the Grim Reaper. Below it, a ribbon of letters spells Brooklyn, and across the top are the words, Trust no one.

He got the tattoo when he came home from Iraq. It signaled his entry into another kind of battle, one between him and the traditions of his family.

From the time Mr. Montaser was 12, he remembers his mother telling him he would marry a girl from Yemen. He never liked the idea.

They say you just build love, he said.

A bride had also been chosen for his brother, Abdulbasset, and the family began talking of a dual wedding before the two men left for Iraq, with different units, in the spring of 2003.

While he was away, Mr. Montaser, 25, served mostly as a translator in Nasiriya, training the Iraqi police and rebuilding schools.

Iraq felt strangely familiar. He studied the streets, the cars, the way people dressed, and kept thinking of Yemen, where he had spent stretches of his youth.

In young Iraqis, he saw himself. He would look at them and wonder, had his father not moved to Brooklyn, would his life have been so different?

He was most haunted by the children, those who begged in the street and others who lay dead in a hospital he visited.

I just saw how precious life was, he said. To come back alive, I feel I have the right to do whatever I want to do.

Soon after he returned that September, Mr. Montaser fell in love with a woman from the Bronx. She was Muslim, but did not cover her head. She was of Arab descent, but not Yemeni.

Their relationship was not the first rebellion staged by Mr. Montaser, who prefers the nickname Ace to his birth name, Abdulsamed.

His parents went ahead with the original wedding plan. Nine months later, they persuaded him to fly to Yemen, where they own a house in the capital, Sana.

The night before the wedding, he plotted his escape.

He quietly packed his camouflage Marine bag. At midnight, he slipped out of the house. On a dresser, he left a note saying that he had gotten cold feet and was traveling south to the port city of Aden.

That’s the good thing about being a marine, he said. You plan. You’re made for these situations. That’s how I got out.

He hailed a cab to the American Embassy, where a Marine staff sergeant ushered him inside. The next day, he flew back to New York.

What he realized is the Marine Corps is his other family, said Gunnery Sgt. Jamal Baadani, an Egyptian immigrant and a mentor of Mr. Montaser.

A week later, Mr. Montaser married his girlfriend, Nafeesah, at City Hall. They live in the Bronx with her parents.

Mr. Montaser is now studying to become a radio producer. For a long time, he did not speak to his parents. He is trying to mend the relationship, but has no interest in returning to Yemen.

I don’t care what I left behind, he said. There’s nothing for me there. Everything’s in America.

A Quiet Return

Ismile Althaibani was the last to come home. He arrived at his parents’ doorstep without warning on Thanksgiving day in 2004, leaning on a pair of crutches.

They answered the bell and embraced him. He knew there would be none of the balloons and signs that welcomed a Puerto Rican marine in the neighborhood.

It’s just decorations, Mr. Althaibani said.

Nine days earlier, on Nov. 17, Mr. Althaibani was in Falluja, riding in a predawn convoy to pick up detainees. He had said a prayer before the trip, reciting the Koran’s first verse. If he survived, he promised God, he would become a better Muslim.

Suddenly, a bomb planted by the insurgents exploded under his truck.

Shrapnel flew into his face and dug deep inside his left foot. Blood trickled from his ears. A friend dragged him from the wreckage, and soon he was on a helicopter to Baghdad.

Mr. Althaibani almost never tells the story of his injury. Few of his relatives know what happened. When he was awarded the Purple Heart at a ceremony at Floyd Bennett Field, in Brooklyn, he invited only his brother Abe and a couple of friends.

His mother does not know the name of his medal.

You can’t say purple heart’ in Arabic, said Mr. Althaibani.

But word traveled. About six months after he returned, Mr. Althaibani was standing outside Yemen Cafe on Atlantic Avenue, sipping tea. A stranger walked up, shook his hand and asked him, in Arabic, if he had killed Iraqis.

None of the marines in Mr. Althaibani’s family welcomed the attention. But for Ismile, it was especially uncomfortable.

A lean man with brown, searching eyes, Mr. Althaibani is always standing off to the side. He is quiet by nature, but returned from Iraq even more withdrawn, his relatives observed. He smiled less, and smoked often.

One afternoon in May, he sank into a couch in his family’s living room. His father, who is a maintenance foreman at a building in Manhattan, sat across from him.

Iraq is wrong 100 percent, his father said, speaking in English to this reporter. Nobody support the war in Iraq.

Ismile looked away. He had never asked his father what he thought of the war.

Weeks later, the young man stood in a park in Downtown Brooklyn, smoking a cigarette.

He’s proud of me, he said of his father. He don’t express himself a lot.

His foot had finally healed. He had been attending a local mosque, and would soon begin training at the New York City Police Academy.

The physical traces of his time in Iraq were all but gone. His hair fell loosely over his forehead. A soft goatee shaded his face.

The only hint of his service hung from two silver chains that disappeared beneath his shirt. They held the aluminum tags of his military identity: name. Blood type. Social Security number.

Stamped across the bottom, in the same block letters, was the word Muslim.


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