By Sgt. Brandon Little, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
March 6, 2008 - Deployed American forces go out of their way to interact with local citizens, hoping to gain their confidence by helping them get a better understanding of the U.S. mission and culture. Knowing that cultural understanding has to work both ways, the U.S. military continues to provide its servicemembers with training on Islamic cultures and their way of life. But what happens after all the training and soldiers still have questions?
Multinational Division Baghdad soldiers in Task Force 12 who practice Islam answer questions about their religion and help fellow soldiers put a familiar face with an unfamiliar culture.
"I've known the soldiers I work with for a long time, and they don't treat me any different just because I'm from a different culture," said Army Spc. Emadeldeen Elboctorcy, a UH-60 Black Hawk maintainer in Company D, 3rd Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment. "They're pretty considerate of my religion; for example, when some of the soldiers go to get food for everybody, they always make sure there is a plate without pork."
Elboctorcy, who is now a U.S. citizen, was born and reared as a devout Muslim in Alexandria, Egypt. He moved to the United States in 1995 and has been answering the questions of those curious about his religion ever since.
"When you get cultural awareness training, they only give you so much information, and many of the soldiers, to include myself, still had questions," said Army 1st Sgt. Ronald Pickens, a native of Abilene, Texas, who serves with Company D. "Instead of asking their question in front of everybody, they felt more comfortable asking Elboctorcy, and he would explain his point of view. He's a very tolerant person and willing to answer those questions."
Army Spc. Asad Khan, a New York City resident for nearly 30 years, was born in a small town near Lahore, Pakistan, and often is asked about his religion and his country's culture.
"Some people think that everyone who is a Muslim is a radical, but that's not the case," said Khan, an air traffic control systems maintainer in Company F, 7th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment. "There are a few, just like in every religion, who are extremist, but I was definitely not brought up that way."
The combination of cultural awareness training and having a soldier in the unit who practices Islam has helped the other soldiers understand that different doesn't mean good or bad; it just means different, Pickens said.
"I joined the Army because I wanted to make a difference in the war using my language. But at that time, there was no military occupational specialty for Arabic linguist," said Elboctorcy, a native of Citrus Heights, Calif. "I guess in a sense I am making a difference, because even though I'm not out there talking to Iraqis, I'm still providing information to the soldiers who want to know more about Arabic cultures."
"He doesn't explain how the cultures are different; he explains how the cultures are similar," Pickens noted. Islam, just like most other religions, teaches people they should love and respect one another, Elboctorcy said.
Having been born in the Middle East, Khan and Elboctorcy said, they feel a connection to people who live in this region, but living in the United States for so many years has made them appreciate both cultures.
"I feel a strong connection to Iraqis who have dual citizenship with a country like the U.S. or Great Britain," Elboctorcy said. "We can share experiences we've had in living in both cultures and speaking both languages."
Although Khan is not yet a U.S. citizen, he has begun the naturalization process and will more than likely become a citizen before the end of his deployment.
Whether it's learning from cultural awareness training, or from a fellow soldier who has lived in a certain region of the world, Task Force 12 soldiers have plenty of options to educate themselves on unfamiliar cultures and ways of life.
"I've never been stereotyped or judged by the soldiers I work with; they know me, and they know I'm from New York," Khan said. "Don't get me wrong, I still love Pakistan, but America has my heart, and I will always be an American."
(Army Sgt. Brandon Little serves in the Task Force 12 Public Affairs Office, Multinational Division Baghdad.)