Nate Terani –
As I have been publicly speaking out in the media, in the wake of rampant Islamophobia and hate speech against the Muslim community on the part of public figures like Donald Trump and his ilk, people often ask me about my experience in the U.S. military as an American Muslim. Was I mistreated, discriminated against, harassed, etc.? I am often taken aback by these questions. My experience in the military had been immensely positive, highly successful, and yielded friendships and memories I will carry for the rest my life. Outside of the insidious anti-Muslim hate speech in the public zeitgeist, in my personal experiences it was only when I entered the civilian world, working in the private sector, politics, even in the non-profit sector, that I endured discrimination regularly and overtly. It made me realize a fundamental and existential truth that the American civilian world can learn from the American military.
In the civilian world, upon learning about my Iranian ancestry and/or Muslim faith, I have been asked by fellow employees, clients, and superiors, questions like, “How did they let you in the military if you’re one of them?” “How do you think people would react if they knew we had an active Muslim working here?” (still not sure what an “active” Muslim is) or a softer approach, “Well, you’re probably one of the good ones, right?” In cases where my faith and ethnicity were unknown, I regularly overheard and had to correct a litany of bigoted and xenophobic statements. I’m ashamed to say, at times I have felt the pressure to not mention that I am fluent in a Middle Eastern language and not speak of my religion for fear of “not moving up” or not even being hired. This is not to say that there haven’t been highly supportive and wonderful colleagues and supervisors in the civilian world. Interestingly, the positive experiences have mainly been in the private sector and in a corporate culture where the spirit of the company was much more akin to military life insofar as workplace discipline, onus on the leadership, respect for diversity, and development of individual talents is concerned.
In the military, one of the first lessons I learned was that the strength and success of the unit depends strictly upon the cohesion and unity of its individual members. Early on, during basic training, I was selected to serve as the AROC (Assistant Recruit Chief Petty Officer), which meant I was one of the two recruits placed in charge of the unit internally and in the absence of the Company Commanders (Drill Instructors). The Company Commanders had just fired the two AROC’s before me for “failure of leadership.” So, when I was selected for this role, I told our Company Commander (Chief Valen), that I thought I was too young, inexperienced, and frankly scared to death of making a mistake and letting everyone down. Chief Valen gave me the most fundamental piece of leadership advice I’ve ever received and I’ve never forgotten it; he said, “Terani, I didn’t select you because you’re a yeller and a screamer, I selected you because you have heart, you care about your people. Here you have 80 different guys from 80 different places and that means you have to have the heart to approach each of them in 80 different ways, as diverse individuals. Using the diversity to your advantage, using the individual talents and perspectives of each person to its fullest. That’s what makes the Navy strong.” I didn’t realize it in that moment, but what Chief Valen had said, wasn’t just what made the Navy strong, it’s what makes America strong.
Despite their jingoism and faux patriotism, what makes divisive characters like Donald Trump not just vile, but wholly unfit to serve as Commander in Chief of the American military, is that their brand of white nationalism and quest for a homogeneous and closed society is not only fully counter to who we are as a nation, but it actually makes America less safe. What people like Trump and his followers will never understand is that America is great not because 300 million of us think with one perspective, but because we have 300 million diverse perspectives to overcome any of our challenges. Should we falter and acquiesce to the fearmongering and xenophobia of Donald Trump and his cohorts we will certainly sacrifice the bright future our Founders envisioned and the ideal for which generations of American service members gave the ultimate sacrifice.