I wore my new air battle uniform, still crisp and uncomfortable, and looked down at my oversized desert combat boots. They were the smallest size available. The terminal in Baltimore/Washington International Airport was busy that Sunday afternoon in June, but I spotted her immediately—Mom had on her signature shalwar kameez and gold bangles.
Her soft, genuine smile caught my eye: She was proud of me.
Twelve or so family members greeted me while my nieces and nephews played around two airport benches. I felt fortunate to say one last goodbye to my family before I deployed to Baghdad. My four sisters set up a makeshift table and served my team of airmen and me aloo gosht and channa rice on Styrofoam plates. The taste of the soft aloo as it melted in my mouth filled my soul—it’s the “meat and potatoes” of Pakistani cuisine and always reminds me of Mom.
A few years prior, my sister and I waited in line with Mom at the grocery store while she spoke to us in Punjabi.
“Why don’t you speak American?” said a middle-aged, bearded, white man who stood behind us in line. “This is America!”
Mom was composed. In the aftermath of 9/11, we grew accustomed to being openly ostracized by our fellow countrymen. So when I told my parents I wanted to join the Air Force, they were reticent. How could they willingly accept this choice when they knew I might be treated differently because of my brown skin and the name tape on my uniform that read “ALI”? But I knew I was destined to serve; I felt it in every fiber of my being. I had to listen to the voice inside.
Back at the airport, it was time for me to board my rotator. Mom’s eyes watered, and Dad comforted her: “It is her duty.”
As Ramadan comes to an end and Memorial Day approaches, I’ve reflected on the lives of two fallen soldiers, Capt. Humayun Saqib Muazzam Khan and Corp. Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan. Both lost their lives fulfilling their duty. As a Muslim serving in the military and the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, I understand the call that Humayun and Kareem felt to serve. They likely faced similar challenges to me—the ones my parents feared. But they served with dignity, regardless. I wanted to honor them, so I journeyed to Arlington National Cemetery to pay my respects.
The sun blazed, and morning dew covered the grass. My sunglasses fogged up from my breath coming up from behind my mask. “Section 60,” I told the security guard. “Can you tell me which direction?” As I walked toward York Drive, I imagined the parents of Humayun and Kareem walking the same path. Each step grew heavier as I thought about them.
I was filled with awe and gratitude as I gazed at the 400,000 white headstones resting in the immaculately maintained grass. Some stones stood in the sunshine, while the shade of trees guarded others. All represented a human life committed to service.
After walking more than half a mile, I saw the marker for Section 60 and turned left. I wrapped my scarf around my head and searched for a headstone with a crescent and star on it. In Arabic, I began to recite Sura Al-Fatiha, the opening verse of the Qur’an:
In the Name of God—the Most Compassionate, Most Merciful.
All praise is for God—Lord of all worlds
the Most Compassionate, Most Merciful,
Master of the Day of Judgment.
You alone we worship and You alone we ask for help.
Guide us along the Straight Path…
Then I saw it. The back of the headstone in front of me read 7986. I walked to the other side and squinted. I recognized the crescent and star. The fading stone read, “Humayun Saqib Muazzam Khan.”
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Capt. Khan came to the United States when he was two. He dreamed of becoming an attorney—like his Pakistani father, Khizr Muazzam Khan. As a child, he learned about Thomas Jefferson and “was inspired by the idea of safeguarding freedom.” At the University of Virginia, military service appealed to Humayan, and he commissioned through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program. Khan was awarded Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals after his death in eastern Iraq in 2004. He was 27. Capt. Khan is remembered as an “exceptional person, leader and military officer who loved his soldiers.”
I prayed for Humayan and noticed three small stones sitting on top of his grave—a gray one and two brown ones. Did his family put these stones there? Maybe it was his mother, Ghazala Khan. Humayan’s mother reminds me a bit of my own mom. In images, her dupatta drapes over her head, and round glasses frame her face. Underneath, her eyes show two extremes, love and pain. Her back—always straight. There is a quiet dignity and grace about her. I looked at the stones again. I decided that they may represent Humayun and his two brothers.
The journey was much shorter to grave 8441. I studied the shaded marble headstone in front of me: “Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan.” I bowed my head in prayer.
Corp. Khan died a month after I entered active duty. He was 20.
At his grave, I placed seven white tulips, closed my eyes, and envisioned the black-and-white image of his mother, Elsheba Khan, that is forever etched in my memory. She embraced his headstone and rested her head in the same manner in which I comfort my young son before bed each night. Though exhausted, she also looks at peace, for she is with her son.
Thirteen years ago, General Colin Powell was also touched by this captivating image: “His name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life.”
Kareem’s dad, Feroze Khan, described his son as a “total goofball” who loved video games, the Dallas Cowboys, and playing with his stepsister, Aliya. After 9/11, Kareem felt compelled to serve, just like I did. “He was determined to show the world that not all Muslims were fanatics and that many, like him, were willing to lay down their lives for their country.”
On Aug. 6, 2007, Khan was killed in Baqubah, Iraq. He was posthumously promoted to corporal and was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
I whispered Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un—“To God we belong and to Him is our return”—as a reminder to myself before I left.
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The parents of Capt. Humayun Saqib Muazzam Khan and Cpl. Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan came to mind again. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, I pray that God “may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”
We remember your sons, and we honor your sacrifice.
Peace be upon you.