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Muslim Chaplains Serve Various Roles During Deployment

By Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 29, 2008 – Though every chaplain in today’s military has important roles, Muslim chaplains are called upon often to support units in Iraq and Afghanistan because of their expertise and cultural influence, said a military chaplain at the Pentagon.

In today’s Defense Department, there’s an average of one Muslim chaplain for every 500 Muslim servicemembers, and with the current deployment tempo of troops in the Middle East, those 11 chaplains have a lot on their plate, said Army Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Maddox Woodbery, deputy chaplain for the Joint Chiefs of Staff Office.

One such chaplain, Army Capt. Mohammed M. Khan, said chaplains should be continually active in their units to support their commander and troops in any aspect a chaplain can. Whether it’s cultural awareness, religious councelings or community outreach, chaplains should be dynamic in their cause, he said.

“Chaplains must stay active and show their commanders how they can help,” said Khan, who’s stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., with the 20th Engineer Brigade. “When you’re deployed, you can’t just stay on the [base]. Whether you’re a Muslim soldier or chaplain or what, you have to find a way to help and support the mission.”

Khan speaks from experience. He has served in various ways during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and 2004. He deployed with the 101st Airborne Division to Mosul, Iraq, and served as a chaplain, cultural liaison and Arabic translator. During his tour, he helped build relationships with imams and other leaders throughout Ninevah province, he said.

Khan said his former division commander, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, had very good relations with the people and communities in northern Iraq. In fact, Petraeus, at the time, had established the first democratic government in the country, Khan said.

The chaplain also helped calm tensions among the Muslim populace. On several occasions he worked to convince local leaders and imams not to launch attacks on coalition troops. More often than not, he said, he was successful, explaining that “the American troops would do everything possible to protect and work for the people,” he said.

“It was a tough dilemma being Muslim and operating in a Muslim country – to convince the host nation that coalition forces are here for peace and to help,” he said. "It was hard for fellow Muslims to understand and to bring confidence in the local command.”

The role and personality of chaplains, in general, have come a long way since Khan began his military career in 1980, he said. Khan is a Muslim Indian with a nursing degree and master’s degree in Islamic studies. He enlisted as a medic, and in 1997 became the Defense Department’s second Muslim chaplain, he added.

“The chaplain has evolved so much throughout the Army since I joined,” he said. The chaplain’s role has changed so much since, and they used to be so quiet and kept, but now they’re very outgoing and very social. Things have changed for the better.”

Khan said servicemembers and chaplains don’t have to be Muslim to understand the culture or to successfully operate in an Islamic country. He said the professionalism and awareness servicemembers display daily in Iraq and Afghanistan goes a long way and is evident in the work of chaplains and commanders across the military exhibit to ensure cultural education.

“Servicemembers learn very quickly, and they adapt to the Muslim culture very well,” he said. “They plan operations around holidays, such as Ramadan, and become very respectful of the culture. This shows me the great strides we’ve made as chaplains and leaders in the military.”

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