Sadia Ali Heil is a major in the Air Force Reserve. She earned her master’s in military operational art and science, was named a 2020 Tillman scholar and is pursuing a master’s in special education.
I was a junior in high school that fateful Tuesday morning. After learning more about the attackers, I fearfully walked to my honors world history class. We had recently covered some of the atrocities that happened during World War II, and my lively, impassioned teacher wondered aloud: Will Muslim Americans be forced into internment camps like Japanese Americans were?
For me, 9/11 was a calling — of faith and duty, and it changed my life forever.
My parents immigrated to the United States from Pakistan in the 1980s, and my six siblings and I grew up relatively poor in Northern Virginia. Dad, a math teacher in Pakistan, woke up before sunrise every morning to drive a taxi in D.C., while Mom was our caregiver. Every night, Dad came home to a masala-filled house. The aroma of red pepper, turmeric, coriander, onion, tomato, garlic and garam masala would fill our senses and permeate our clothes and hair. Dad would tell us about his adventures that day — like how he drove a soldier to the Pentagon or a politician to Capitol Hill. Although we did not have much financially, my family was rich in other ways: culture, family ties, our ability to assimilate to life in America.
When I was 16, Mom and Dad decided it was time for us to understand our roots and travel to their homeland. For the first time in my life, I saw the tremendous imbalance between the rich and poor. I watched shirtless, shoeless children crying, begging for food and money, and was baffled by the indifference shown to these kids. I struggled to grasp the gender disparities I witnessed in Pakistan. Girls my age worked as full-time nannies and housekeepers; could this have been my fate? I arrived in Pakistan with culture shock, and left with a lasting print on my heart. I genuinely appreciated what it meant to be an American, especially an American woman. The opportunities I had in America are something I would never take for granted again — and this gratitude ignited my desire to serve the country that had given my family so much.
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks happened a few months after the trip. I was heartbroken to see the pain and suffering of so many American families, outraged by those who had committed such hateful atrocities under the guise of my faith, and devastated at the deepening of Islamophobia in its wake. After someone launched a brick into a window of my uncle’s home, Dad and his friends stopped wearing traditional shalwar kameez to work. My sisters and I bought American flags to hang in their taxis, hoping to make them less of a target for those inciting hate.
I felt so confused. More than anything, I felt a stronger sense of patriotism and a desire to show the world that in addition to my identity as a Muslim, a Pakistani, a woman and a first-generation minority from an immigrant family — I was an American.
Six years later, I swore to protect and defend my country, serving as an Air Force officer during the Afghanistan war. Early on, I realized that some of my peers had never met another Muslim before; all they knew of my faith is what they learned from mainstream media.
“Sadia, do you speak Islamic?”
It was the first time I realized I was an ambassador of my faith. The weight is an honor, but it is often difficult to carry. It was heavy when some of my instructors casually referred to the holy month of Ramadan as “Rama-bomb,” and when people who came from my parents’ homeland were referred to as “crazy Pakistanis” or “ragheads” by brothers and sisters in arms. During my deployment to Baghdad, the Fort Hood shooting took place in Texas. I walked alone into the dining facility of my base, watching the news. I bore my M9 pistol and the invisible armor I’d learned to wear. The news blasted across my base was hosting a discussion: Should Muslims be allowed to serve in the U.S. military?
It all stung so badly. Here I was, serving my country during Operation Iraqi Freedom, while random pundits on the screen sat in the comfort of their news studio arguing about whether Americans like me should be able to serve.
Later, I worked for an Islamophobe at a joint command in the Pacific. “You should stay away from him, Sadia,” peers warned. Leaders I served with sarcastically referred to him as “Mullah.” In Islam, a mullah is a Muslim trained in sacred law; this was not the case. I later learned about his pattern of reporting Muslim service members to undermine their careers and lives. I longed to move on from the feeling of having to wear invisible armor on duty to protect myself from my own teammates; it was exhausting.
I now realize that I am not alone. Many service members continue to serve even after facing discrimination based on race, gender or religious belief. We are all united by a common thread: a passion for serving something greater than ourselves, a strong love for country, and the resolve to pursue the American Dream.
The entire world understands the uniqueness, beauty and spirit of this dream. No matter your background, race, religion or economic class, in America you have the opportunity to work hard and achieve whatever you set out to do in life. Like any dream worth fighting for, the American Dream is not without its obstacles. Its fate lies in the resolve of each and every American. Twenty years ago, I refused to accept the idea that terrorists would hijack my faith in the name of their hateful political agenda. Today, I refuse to validate those who try to dim the light of others because of their prejudiced beliefs.
The American Dream represents ideals paramount to our democracy and is vital to our national security. In what other nation can you find a military composed of women and men who carry such a plethora of experiences and come from so many distinct backgrounds? Diversity is critical to military readiness. It makes our nation unique, and in this diversity lies our strength. Extraordinary skills, languages, lessons and perspectives meld together, allow us to better defend the United States and its interests, and provide our military with a competitive edge to combat our adversaries.
Twenty years after 9/11, we are all trying to make sense of the current situation in Afghanistan. Fear, confusion, sadness and anxiety may manifest into anger. Some look for a scapegoat, and sadly, Islamophobia remains steadfast in our communities. As Americans, we know better. It is time for us to do better — our children are watching. Society is still reckoning with waves of civil unrest against systemic racism while confronting an alarming increase in ethnic nationalism, prejudicial to the ideals set forth by the Constitution.
The oath of office I took supports the American Dream — and only when we work toward creating an equitable society where we seek to understand each other, support one another and hold people accountable can that dream truly become a possibility for all Americans.
Fourteen years ago, I raised my right hand and gave this oath, and I continue to serve today because representation matters — our national security depends on it.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense or the U.S. government.