I joined the United States Air Force JROTC because I loved airplanes. My favorite video game was Microsoft Flight Simulator, and one of my favorite activities was looking up at the sky and trying to guess the type of plane flying overhead. My friends in the program told me that a huge part of the JROTC curriculum was devoted to aviation, and so I joined.
And so here I was, 2 years later, standing in a United States Air Force base on a summer day, watching a USAF C-17 take off from a runway that was right in front of my barracks. With sweat running down my forehead due to the summer heat, I called the rest of the cadets to the position of attention.
Yours Truly: “Group!”
Squadron Commanders: “Squadron!”
Flight Commanders: “Flight!”
Yours Truly: “A Ten Hut!”
The entire group stood at attention.
This command sequence was a common ritual at Summer Leadership School, a JROTC military leadership camp stationed at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. We would do it whenever we formed up, whether it was at 4:45 AM for physical training or at noon for lunch at the chow hall. Three hundred cadets from high schools across the state comprised a Group, which was divided into two Squadrons. Those two squadrons were divided into four Flights each, so that’s why the command cascaded in that sequence. I still remember calling the command for the first time, because I messed it up pretty badly. All I had to do was say one word, but it came out of my mouth so softly that no one heard me. One of the cadet-training officers from the Rutgers Air Force ROTC chewed me out for it in front of the entire camp.
As you can tell, first impressions aren’t exactly my thing.
To me, there was something more alarming than the military training environment: that I had to make sure I didn’t miss my prayers in the military training environment. Now I want you to imagine the scenario that I was in: I was living in a military base, surrounded by military personnel and JROTC cadets, some of whom had never even interacted with Muslims before. The camp’s schedule was extremely tight; there was rarely a minute wasted between sessions. But, you know, all of that didn’t matter, Alhamdulillah. At the end of the day, salah is the heaviest of all obligations, and that’s the mindset that I stuck with during the camp.
But it turned out that my prayers didn’t isolate me from the rest of the cadets. It made me feel closer to them.
So hurdle number one was the fact that no alarm in the world could wake me up for Fajr. The alarm on my watch was especially weak, so the odds were even more against my favor. How was I possibly going to get up so I could have time to pray Fajr before we had to form up the Group at 4:45 AM for physical training? There was nothing I could do except set my alarm and hope for the best.
But—surprise, surprise—I did end up getting up for Fajr. It wasn’t the alarm clock that woke me up, but one of my roommates—specifically the Group Commander, a.k.a, my boss. He knew I set my alarm to pray, so when it woke him up, he got himself out of his bunk and woke me up for no reward other than that of helping his Vice out.
Initially, I was afraid that prayers would make me feel different from the rest of my command staff, but they were bringing us closer together. He probably has no idea that that small gesture still means so much to me, and that’s the beauty of doing good for others, that the impact is so much greater than what is seen at the surface.
What never stopped astounding me was the accepting nature of the military personnel around me. Remember how I described earlier that a cadet-training officer ripped me apart in front of the entire camp? Well, I had to excuse myself once from an exercise so I could pray, but in order to do so, I had to ask one of these CTOs for permission. I asked, absolutely scared of this individual, but he reassured me that it was completely fine and I was excused. Another time, I had to ask an Air Force Captain for permission to step aside, and the Captain gave a similar warm-hearted, reassuring response that I could go ahead and pray.
So why share this story? Well, while Islamophobia is a problem for the American Muslim community, I strongly feel that many of us do not give our fellow Americans enough credit for their tolerance. Many of us fear praying in public, while forgetting that this country was built upon the principle of freedom of religion. While I learned lessons in leadership from this camp, I learned an even greater lesson about humanity: that individuals tend to be much more accepting than we assume them to be. In fact, I don’t even remember the yelling or the stress or the various issues that popped up in my stint as the Vice Group Commander. What remains stuck in my head is that memory of my commander waking me up in the morning for Fajr, simply because he realized it was time for me to pray. ❧
Taufeeq Ahamed is a sophomore majoring in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry. A 49ers fan, amateur goalkeeper, and samosa enthusiast, he is the current president of the Rutgers–New Brunswick Muslim Student Association.