In Islam, being thankful and grateful to God is always discussed in the context of your ability to be grateful and thankful to others. The prophet of Islam in his famous hadith says, “For those who are not thankful to their fellow human beings can never be thankful to their Lord.” In this season of Thanksgiving and gratitude, I wanted to bring a special group of people to our attention—a group that deserves so much of our individual and collective gratitude: our war veterans. Last week we celebrated Veterans Day, and there have been numerous events, celebrations and talks about our veterans throughout that week. I don’t know what you have done about this important issue, but I sent hundreds of thank you and apology notes to the veterans that I know. I thanked them for the obvious, and we cannot be thankful and grateful enough to these brave women and men for what they have done for us. I thanked them from the bottom of my heart for risking their lives, giving their time and energy and making a commitment, often over many years, to protect this country and more.
But I sincerely believe they deserve a huge apology from our government and from our society as well. I apologized to them for dragging them to unjust and unjustified wars, often against their will and based on problematic information. I apologized to them for forcing them to lose a significant part of their youth, their innocence and, more importantly, their dreams through these wars. I apologized for not taking care of their needs while they were there at war for us. More strongly, I apologized for not taking care of their needs when they came back home. I sincerely apologized for the high unemployment and homelessness rates among veterans. More importantly, I profusely apologized for not creating a nurturing and compassionate environment for them to heal their internal and external wounds. I apologized for veterans’ issues being discussed often as if they are burden to us.
Let me unpack my thanks and apologies after providing a brief history of my personal involvement with veterans in the United States. The issues of the veterans were brought to my attention, in a real sense, soon after I arrived to the Duke campus as the University’s first Muslim chaplain. A young veteran who fought both in Afghanistan and Iraq recently reached out to me to deal with the “monstrous image of Islam and Muslims” in his mind. He was going through serious post-traumatic stress disorder issues, and some of them were closely related to outwardly Muslim images and some of the teachings of Islam as he perceives them. He asked me to help him because he couldn’t be comfortable around women with hijab (Muslim head scarf), men with long beards or if a foreign language was spoken around him. I witnessed personally several times how he was physically shaken and filled with anxiety and fear when in any of those circumstances. Our long conversations, readings that I have suggested and his gradual exposure to the local Muslim community by attending various Muslim gatherings helped him a great deal. Thank God he is in a much better spot than where he was. He then introduced me to many of his friends who go through similar struggles and those friends introduced me to their own friends. I couldn’t be happier or prouder to be the conversation partner of these young souls who had the courage to reach out. I try my very best to meet with them personally if they are in my area. If not, I make sure to put them in touch with the Muslim communities where they are.
It didn’t take too long, however, for me to see that their issues with Islam and Muslims were only a few of the many struggles that veterans go through after they return from combat missions overseas. Many of them come back with wounded and scarred souls as a result of their traumatic experiences, and they are once more forced to fight different kinds of wars here at home as they struggle to heal their internal and external wounds. Where shall I start! Their struggles range from waiting for long months to receive their benefits, having to jump through so many hoops to get them, being told to “prove” their PTSD or various other mental challenges, being instructed to go only to a specific hospital—often really far away from where they live—to get certain medical help.... The list goes on. Many of these heroes struggle to initiate and sustain any real relationships, often feeling judged, misunderstood and alienated. This is simply wrong and shameful on many different fronts. We should be able to embrace our daughters and sons after asking them to put up with so much sacrifice for us as a nation.
Referring to the saying of Prophet Muhammad above, our inability to be thankful and grateful to our veterans reveals a worrisome condition for us as a nation. I salute all of these brave women and men with respect and humility. May the source of all blessings and healing provide you all abundantly what your nation falls embarrassingly short of providing.
Abdullah Antepli is the Muslim Chaplain and an adjunct faculty of Islamic Studies. His column runs every other Tuesday.