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August 09, 2016

How the Sacrifice of One Muslim-American Soldier is Changing the National Conversation

By Joe Jenkins

This blog is cross-posted from Veterans for American Ideals.

Humayun Khan was 27 when he served in the Army’s 1st Infantry Division. The Captain was universally liked among the soldiers under his command. He was a special kind of officer—the kind that stood with his troops and made sure that they were taken care of first. He was what we enlisted men and women refer to as a “soldier’s officer.”

That’s exactly who he was being on June 8, 2004 at a traffic checkpoint in the eastern province of Diyala, Iraq. It was his day off, but Captain Khan insisted that he check on his men.

When the Captain saw a suspicious vehicle approach the checkpoint, he knew something was wrong. He ordered his men to hit the dirt, but he went forward. The car exploded, killing him. His soldiers survived.

“On the day he died, he was doing exactly what a good leader should do,” said his commanding officer, Brigadier General Dan Mitchell. That’s what his soldiers had come to expect from him. And his sacrifice has lived on in their memories. Khan’s service is immortalized on a headstone in Arlington National Cemetery, the star and crescent of the Islamic faith adorning its face, tucked neatly between the crosses and Stars of David of his fallen brothers and sisters in arms.

Now, in 2016, the Captain’s sacrifice is more important than ever. We’ve seen an alarming resurgence of Islamophobic rhetoric in the national dialogue, from xenophobic statements regarding the dangers of Islam to calls to ban Muslim immigration to the United States.

Captain Khan’s father recently spoke out against such rhetoric. The Pakistani-American not only told his son’s story, but also brought to light the stories of millions of Muslims living and working in America. “Like many immigrants, we came to this country empty-handed. We believed in American democracy—that with hard work and the goodness of this country, we could share in and contribute to its blessings.”

Holding a up a copy of the Constitution, Khan’s father, an attorney, beckoned the nation to look for the words “liberty” and “equal protection for all”—words that his son believed in so strongly that he died for them. After this, sales of copies of the U.S. Constitution skyrocketed.

Captain Khan’s mother was equally eloquent. As a Gold Star mother (the term reserved for the families of fallen heroes since the first World War), Ghazala Khan was still noticeably bereaved at the loss of her son. Still, she implored the country in the Washington Post: “He loved America, where we moved when he was 2 years old. He had volunteered to help his country... this was before the attack of Sept. 11, 2001. He didn’t have to do this, but he wanted to.”

The Captain’s mother, much like the mothers of so many others who wear the uniform of the United States, did not want her son to put himself in danger. She beckoned him to stay. But that was not Captain Khan.

“Mom, these are my soldiers, these are my people. I have to take care of them,” he told her.

There has been an outpouring of support for the Khan family. Veterans groups from the grassroots to the long-established have rallied to show their solidarity with all Gold Star families, and to call on our nation to respect the service and sacrifices of our men and women in uniform and their families—regardless of faith or ethnicity. Their message is clear: veterans are one, and we will not be divided.

Many of the 5,000 Muslim-Americans serving today in the armed forces are speaking up about their experiences with Islamophobia. A common thread among these Muslim-American veteran stories is the striking absence of anti-Muslim sentiment within the U.S. military.

“I was often the first Muslim many of them had ever met, but there was no racism, no bigotry. It doesn’t really matter your faith: We were all Marines first,” remarks U.S. Marine Tayyib Rashid.

These statements are being echoed at the highest levels of our military leadership. Senate Armed Services Chairman and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain reached out to the Khan family: “I’d like to say to Mr. and Mrs. Khan: thank you for immigrating to America. We’re a better country because of you… your son was the best of America, and the memory of his sacrifice will make us a better nation—and he will never be forgotten.” Powerful words from one of Captain Khan’s personal heroes.

I served as a U.S. Marine in the Al Anbar province of Iraq, not far from where Captain Khan gave his life. I was the Corporal of the Guard at a traffic control point, much like the one Khan visited on his day off in 2004. I cannot stop thinking about how I could have been one of those whom he saved—and how little it would have mattered the religion he practiced.

Help us honor the service and sacrifice made by all of our armed forces and their families, regardless of their faith, by signing on to Human Rights First’s action letter here.