Fort Hood Ups Challenge to Recruit Muslim, Arab Troops

Kathleen Gray and Donna Leinwand, USA Today, December 10, 2009

Army recruiter Sgt. Chris McGarity is on the front lines of the military’s effort to add troops who speak Arabic and understand Middle Eastern culture–a battle that grew more challenging after the shooting at Fort Hood, Texas.

McGarity says he recently signed up an Arab-American high school student who lacked only her parents’ approval to enlist. Then came the Nov. 5 rampage at Fort Hood. {snip}

The high school student’s mother “made her withdraw her application,” McGarity says.

Such experiences illustrate heightened fears of discrimination and harassment aimed at Arab-American and Muslim troops since the Fort Hood shooting, says Mikey Weinstein, a former Air Force lawyer who founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which advocates for separation between church and state in the military.

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Before the shooting at Fort Hood, the foundation had 80 Muslim clients who had reported instances of discrimination and harassment, Weinstein says. Complaints jumped 20% to 103 in the weeks after the shooting. “We had people almost immediately . . . being told ‘you people’ should not be in the military,” he says.

Weinstein says he regularly gets complaints from troops who report name-calling, extra duty on holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving, anti-Muslim graffiti scrawled on prayer centers, and officers who encourage their troops to kill Muslims or demand Christian prayer.

Language as a powerful weapon

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Last year, the Army sought 270 recruits who speak Arabic, Pashto, Dari and Farsi–the languages of Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan–to serve as military interpreters, says Douglas Smith, spokesman for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Ky.

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A second recruiting program began in February in New York and has expanded to Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago and Dallas. That program targets non-citizens who have been in the U.S. at least two years and have special language and cultural skills from the Middle East, China and Korea, he said. The Army has recruited 455 people under that program, which expires Dec. 31.

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Making the cut in Dearborn, Mich.

Dearborn, where Arab Americans account for nearly a third of the population, is fertile ground, yet just one Arab-American recruit in 20 makes it through the vetting process, about half the success rate of other recruits.

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The recruiters recognize that Arab-American enlistees may worry about fitting in with fellow troops or having to fight in Arab or Muslim countries. They work with Arab organizations in the community and attend job fairs to meet potential recruits. They hire Arabic linguists to work in their office, learning about the Middle Eastern cultures themselves.

Sgt. Ian Parker, 27, starts conversations with potential soldiers by asking how they feel about going to Iraq or Afghanistan. “Once you hit an objection to that, you’re just wasting your time,” Parker says.

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