By Army Sgt. David Turner
Special to American Forces Press Service
Sept. 8, 2008 - The most frequent question soldiers ask Chaplain (Maj.) Ibraheem Raheem is the meaning behind the crescent moon patch on his Army combat uniform.
Sometimes, he said, he jokingly explains that he's an astronaut; other times, he says he's an inspector for field rations or that the moon emblem means he's performed 3,000 night jumps.
In fact, the patch does distinguish Raheem as one of a special group of soldiers. He is one of only six Muslim chaplains serving in the U.S. Army, and is the only one deployed to Iraq.
His service as both a Muslim and an American soldier, he said, can lead to confusion for some people, both in the military and in local communities.
"After you talk to people and explain a few things to them, they get it," Raheem said. "That is, after breaking down a whole bunch of walls that have been put up in people's minds."
Though Muslim soldiers sometimes struggle with the issues of service and faith, Raheem said he and the soldiers to whom he ministers have found ways to reconcile their religious beliefs with their military service.
"Most people understand that there's a difference between serving in the military and deliberately going to fight in a particular place for a religious-based reason. Our military is not religiously based. Most people can see that there's a difference there," he said.
Raheem can relate easily to the problems of both his enlisted and non-Muslim soldiers. Raised in a Baptist household in Kansas City, Kan., he spent his first 12 years in the Army as an enlisted soldier in the Medical Corps. In a way it was that experience, he said, that led him to become a chaplain.
"The medical field was the first thing that jumped out at me, because you get to help people who are sick," he said. "I dealt with a lot of death and illness. It brought me closer to my spiritual upbringing."
Though working in an intensive care unit gave Raheem the opportunity to help people, he said, he found there were other kinds of help people needed, too.
"There was a lot of advanced equipment, but it wasn't always saving people," he said. "At the end of the day, God is the one who determines if a person pulls through or not."
Seeing the work that Army chaplains performed at the hospital inspired Raheem to seek a new path. "I felt like that's when I got my calling to be a chaplain," he said.
The journey would not be complete, however, until Raheem accepted the Islamic faith.
"I started studying the Bible in college, and later began learning about other faiths," he recalled. "When I came across Islam, I went to visit a mosque. A member there gave me a Koran and told me, 'Go and read this, and come back if you have any questions.' I came back the next day with questions, and every day thereafter, each time getting the answers from the Koran until I eventually accepted the faith."
In reading the Koran, Raheem said, he discovered not a rejection of his older faith, but rather a faith resonated more deeply with his beliefs.
"I came to realize that the message it contained was what I had always believed from the days I was a child," he explained. "For instance, that there was only one God that has no images, that the same divine message was given to Noah, Moses, Abraham, David, Jesus and Muhammad. That Adam and Eve were forgiven, and their sins were not passed on to other generations, nor were women blamed only for disobeying God. So it was like a confirmation of what I always believed in my heart my whole life."
After completing seminary school, Raheem received his commission, realizing his ambition to become a chaplain. His acceptance of the Muslim faith had not only changed his career path, but also affected his entire outlook on life.
"My experience with Islam opened my mind to the world, its diversity and its many social challenges," he said. "Before Islam, I only thought of the people in my neighborhood; after Islam, I thought of the entire world."
Raheem is on his third deployment to Iraq since 2003. Attached to the Iraqi Assistance Group, he performs services and counsels Muslim soldiers at Camp Victory, where he is based. He holds a prayer service there every Friday, but also takes his work into the field, finding other Muslim soldiers who otherwise would not have access to his services. He brings copies of the Koran with him, and as part of his mission, he also collects damaged copies to be repaired and redistributed to Iraqi citizens.
During the holy month of Ramadan that's now under way, Raheem travels to as many parts of Iraq as possible to tend to Muslim soldiers' spiritual needs. He estimates there are fewer than 300 Muslim soldiers currently deployed. That means he has to cover a lot of ground.
"It's hard being the only [Muslim chaplain], and there are people spread out in many different places," he said. "Depending on transportation availability, weather and other factors, you may or may not get to a certain place."
While visiting bases around Iraq, Raheem performs services and provides counseling for soldiers, as he does at Camp Victory.
"I'll be getting out and trying to support the soldiers who are out there trying to practice," he said. "I realize that it's hard being one of the few people on the forward operating base that has a different religion, so I try to get out there with them and give them some encouragement."
(Army Sgt. David Turner serves in the Multinational Division Center Public Affairs Office.)